WASHINGTON (AP) — Removing the final barriers that kept women from serving in combat, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has ordered the military to open all military jobs to women, including the most dangerous commando posts.
The historic decision Thursday is a formal recognition that thousands of women have fought — and many were wounded or killed — in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But it's uncertain how many will actually want to compete for some of the more grueling Army and Marine Corps infantry posts or for spots on the high-risk special operations teams.
Carter's move also is a direct rebuff to the Marine Corps, which asked for an exception to prevent women from serving in certain infantry and combat jobs.
"We are a joint force, and I have decided to make a decision which applies to the entire force," Carter told a news conference.
But he acknowledged some concerns. "Implementation won't happen overnight. And while at the end of the day this will make us a better and stronger force, there still will be problems to fix and challenges to overcome. We shouldn't diminish that."
Carter said the military can no longer afford to exclude half the population from high-risk military posts. He said that any man or woman who meets the standards should be able to serve, and he gave the armed services 30 days to submit plans to make the change.
Carter's order opens the final 10 percent of military positions to women — a total of about 220,000 jobs. And it allows them to serve in the most demanding and difficult jobs, including as special operations forces, such as the Army Delta units and Navy SEALs.
On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House would work with Congress to consider changing the selective service law that would make women eligible for the draft.
In recent years, women have steadily moved into many jobs previously open only to men, including on Navy submarines, in Army artillery units, and as Night Stalkers, the elite special operations helicopter crews, best known for flying the Navy SEALS into Osama bin Laden's compound in 2011. And three women became the first to take and pass the Army's difficult Ranger course.
The reactions have been a bit mixed. In a survey disclosed early last year, the Army found that less than 8 percent of women soldiers said they'd like to move into one of the combat posts. And it also revealed that soldiers of both genders were nervous about women entering combat jobs, with men worried that unit readiness would be degraded and women worried they would be seen as getting a job because of their gender and not their qualifications.
As women worked to pass the Navy's Riverine course for the first time, they said they were happy to get a chance to serve in combat. And the men in the course largely shrugged, saying as long as the women could do the same tasks and physical training, it wasn't a big deal.
Still, there have been problems. A male sailor pleaded guilty in June to illegally videotaping female officers in a submarine's shower area. The women in the videos were among the first to serve on subs. The male sailor was sentenced to 10 months in the Navy brig and received a bad conduct discharge.
Overall, however, military leaders have said they've not seen a lot of problems in the early integration efforts. But the decision to open all combat jobs took months of study and vigorous debate.
The military services forwarded their recommendations to Carter earlier this fall. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command all said they would not seek any exceptions and would recommend removing the ban on women in dangerous combat jobs.
Only the Marine Corps sought to keep some jobs closed.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, was the Marine Corps commandant at the time and argued that the Marines should be allowed to keep women out of certain front-line combat jobs. He cited studies showing that mixed-gender units aren't as capable as all-male units.
Months of testing, the Marine review said, found that women often couldn't carry as much weight or shoot as well as the men. Allowing women to compete for ground combat jobs, it concluded, would make the Marine Corps a less-efficient fighting machine.
Carter on Thursday said he came to a different conclusion, but he said the integration of women into the combat jobs will be deliberate and methodical and will address the Marines' concerns.
Dunford did not attend the news conference to announce the change, and when pressed about his absence, Carter said he has discussed his decision multiple times with the chairman. In a prepared statement, Dunford said he provided his best military advice on the issue, and now his focus is "to lead the full integration of women in a manner that maintains our joint warfighting capability, ensures the health and welfare of our people, and optimizes how we leverage talent across the joint force."
A spokesman for the Marines, Maj. Christian Devine, said in a statement that the corps will begin immediately to implement the change, but will maintain the standards of the force while also working to "optimize individual performance."
Notably, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said his office also did extensive analysis and decided not to keep any of the high-risk, high-pressure commando jobs closed. Votel said that integrating women into certain jobs in recent years, including as Night Stalkers and in cultural supports teams in Afghanistan, benefited the force.
"If candidates meet time-tested and scientifically validated standards, and if they have proven that they have the physical, intellectual, professional, and character attributes that are so critical to special operations, they will be welcomed into the special operations forces ranks," Votel said.
Special Operations Command: http://bit.ly/1QZnAZP