By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. Marine Corps and Army generals said on Tuesday that women should be required to register for the military draft, along with men, as the armed forces move toward integrating them fully into combat positions.
"I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft," General Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on women in combat.
General Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, also backed registration for women, although two other witnesses, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy, said only that there should be a discussion of legislation requiring women to register for the Selective Service.
It was the first time Neller and Milley had publicly backed requiring women to register for the draft. They spoke in response to a question from Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who said she also believes women should register.
The White House said the comments did not reflect a policy change. "I don't know how seriously that is being considered," press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force since the 1970s, but young men must register in case the draft is reactivated.
PROCESS WILL TAKE YEARS
The military leaders said it would take years for women to be fully integrated into combat units, although they generally voiced strong support for the plan to skeptical committee members.
Milley estimated full integration would take "no less than one to three years of deliberate effort."
President Barack Obama's defense secretary, Ash Carter, announced in December that the military would let women serve in all combat roles. The historic announcement prompted opposition from many Republican members of Congress, some of whom said it would force women to register for the draft.
Republican Senator John McCain, the committee's chairman, said there had been too little planning. He also pointed to studies that found that women suffer more injuries and did not perform as well. "Rather than honestly confront these realities, some have sought to minimize them," McCain said.
Many Republicans fear the change would lead to quotas mandating specific numbers of women, which they argue could weaken some units, such as Marines in positions that might require hand-to-hand combat.
The military leaders repeatedly rejected that suggestion. "It would endanger not only the safety of Marines, but also the safety of our nation," Mabus said.
Some Republicans also reject such arguments.
"Our country is about treating people as individuals and having a meritocratic approach. ... The debate is over. Women are in combat. Women have been in combat," Representative Martha McSally, a former combat pilot, told Reuters at the House of Representatives after the hearing.
However, she acknowledged that requiring women to register for the draft could change the discussion, whether it meant eliminating the Selective Service altogether or including women.
"I'm not sure how that will go," McSally said.
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)