By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When two women completed the daunting U.S. Army Ranger school this week they helped end questions about whether women can serve as combat leaders, as the Pentagon is poised to open new roles, including elite Navy SEALs, to women in coming months.
The feat by Army Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver followed a re-evaluation of the role of women after their frontline involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the end of a rule barring them from combat roles in 2013.
The two on Tuesday completed a 62-day course including parachute jumps, helicopter assaults, swamp survival and small unit leadership that earned them a Ranger badge, a prestigious decoration that is held by many senior leaders.
"This is the Army's toughest training," said Sue Fulton, a former Army captain who now chairs the advisory Board of Visitors to the U.S. military academy at West Point.
"If there were any remaining questions about whether women could serve as combat leaders, those questions have been answered," she said.
Griest and Haver, who are both in their mid-20s, are expected to face media questions at an event at Fort Benning, Georgia later on Thursday, before formally graduating from the course on Friday.
Only they and 94 men completed the training, which was started by 19 women and 381 men. It was the first time women had been allowed to take part.
OPENING JOBS FOR WOMEN
Two years ago, under then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the U.S. services were told to develop gender-neutral standards for all jobs and to report by this September whether any jobs should remain closed to women.
Women serving in traditional noncombat roles had increasingly found themselves in combat positions. Special operations forces in Afghanistan, for example, found they needed women troops accompanying them to interact with Afghan women.
Since 2013, a number of changes have made women eligible for 111,000 jobs from which they had been excluded, while about 220,000 jobs remain closed to them, said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter will next month review recommendations from the services and the Pentagon will announce in January which additional positions would be opened.
Most of the positions that remain closed are in the Army and Marine Corps.
Only 4,300 Air Force positions in six job classes are still closed, a spokeswoman said. They include positions like forward air controllers who deploy with ground troops near front lines to call in air strikes.
Combat pilot jobs opened to women in 1983 and about 99 percent of the 640,000 Air Force active duty and reserve positions are open to women.
In the Navy only special warfare operators like Navy SEALs and special warfare boat operators remain men-only. There are about 2,500 SEAL jobs and 750 special warfare crewman positions.
Navy spokesman Commander William Marks said the service did not plan to seek exceptions that would prevent women from serving in any positions when it reports to Carter in September.
It was a SEAL commando team that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan in 2011.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey and Richard Pullin)