January 25, 2013

Leon Panetta lifts ban on women serving in combat

Women proven to be integral to military's success, says Defense Secretary Panetta, but not all will meet high standards

BY LOLITA C. BALDOR

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in lifting a ban on women serving in combat, said women have become integral to the military's success and have shown they are willing to fight and die alongside their male counterparts.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey during a news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, where Panetta announced he is lifting a ban on women serving in combat.

AP photo

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Women already playing important roles in military

The Pentagon is knocking down old barriers to women serving in combat, but some already are in risky jobs. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's order, signed Thursday, opens 238,000 new jobs to women.

A look at some of the dangerous jobs women can do now, and what will be open to them if they meet the qualifications:

PILOTS. In 1991, Congress ended a ban on women flying combat aircraft, and three years later the Air Force had its first woman commanding a fighter squadron. Women may fly every aircraft in the Air Force inventory, including bombers. Just last year, Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt became the Air Force's first female wing commander, commanding 5,000 airmen. Women also fly combat aircraft in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

The only Air Force jobs closed to women until now were special operations roles like enlisted pararescue and combat control officer. These jobs were opened Thursday by Panetta's order. As with all combat jobs, the military chiefs have until January 2016 to seek exemptions to bar women from certain jobs.

SUBS. The Navy in April 2010 opened submarine service to women, but only aboard the larger ballistic missile and guided-missile subs, where berthing is less of a privacy problem than on attack subs. On Thursday the Navy announced it is extending that to include attack subs; female officers will begin reporting for assignment on those subs in 2015. The Navy has kept female sailors off of frigates, patrol coastal craft and mine countermeasure ships until now.

MARINES. The decision announced Thursday to stop excluding women from ground combat roles means that about 35,000 Marine infantry slots would be opened to women, as long as they can meet the qualifications. Women already may serve in a variety of combat-related jobs in the Corps, including weapons repair officer. But they have been excluded from others like field artillery, forward air controller and combat engineer.

SOLDIERS. The Army has kept female officers out of many ground combat roles, including armor, infantry and special forces. For example, enlisted women could not be a cavalry scout or a fire support specialist, a position that is primarily responsible for the intelligence activities of the Army's field artillery teams. But they have been allowed to serve as a field artillery radar operator or a supervisor of Patriot air defense units.

-- Associated Press

"The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality," Panetta said Thursday at a Pentagon news conference with Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Panetta said that not all women will be able to meet the qualifications to be a combat soldier.

"But everyone is entitled to a chance," he said.

He said the qualifications will not be lowered, and with women playing a broader role, the military will be strengthened.

Panetta said that his visits to Afghanistan and Iraq to see U.S. forces in action demonstrated to him that women should have a chance to perform combat duties if they wish, and if they can meet the qualifications.

"Our military is more capable, and our force is more powerful, when we use all of the great diverse strengths of the American people," Panetta said earlier Thursday at a Pentagon ceremony in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.

Panetta is expected to step down as Pentagon chief sometime in February. Republican Former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has been nominated as his successor, and his Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 31.

"Every person in today's military has made a solemn commitment to fight, and if necessary to die, for our nation's defense," he said. "We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance."

The decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat presents a daunting challenge to top military leaders who now will have to decide which, if any, jobs they believe should be open only to men.

Panetta planned to announce at a Pentagon news conference that more than 230,000 battlefront posts -- many in Army and Marine infantry units and in potentially elite commando jobs -- are now open to women. It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army's Delta Force.

The historic change, which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

The change won't take place overnight: Service chiefs will have to develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions, a senior military official said. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, may take longer. The services will have until January 2016 to make a case to that some positions should remain closed to women.

Officials briefed The Associated Press on the changes Wednesday on condition of anonymity so they could speak ahead of the official announcement.

There long has been opposition to putting women in combat, based on questions of whether they have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs, or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion.

But as news of Panetta's expected order got out, many members of Congress, including the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., announced their support.

"It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations," Levin said.

Objections were few. Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council, called the move "another social experiment" that will place unnecessary burdens on military commanders.

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