One of the last barriers to the full integration of women into the U.S. military fell Thursday when Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that there will be “no exceptions” barring them from front-line combat assignments.
Declaring that “we are a joint force,” Carter said that while moving women into these jobs will present challenges, the military can no longer afford to exclude half of the population from grueling military jobs.
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 historic change.
Carter’s order opens the final 10 percent of military positions to women and allows them to serve in the military’s most demanding and difficult jobs, including as special operations forces, such as the Army Delta units and Navy SEALs.
“They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” Carter said. “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers, and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, opportunities will open up in the two Stryker infantry brigades, one artillery brigade and special operations units including the Rangers and Green Berets. All these units have women serving in their headquarters, but not in front-line combat jobs.
Carter’s announcement drew support from military leaders in the Northwest who have advocated for women to receive more opportunities in the armed forces, particularly given that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars already blurred the lines between combat and support assignments on the battlefield.
“Opening all occupations to women is the right thing to do,” said Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos, the director of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs and a retired Army command sergeant major.
“If a woman wants to be in an infantry unit or in a submarine, then those occupational specialties should be open,” she said. “Men wash out of training and specialty schools. Women will, too. But it’s not going to be because you’re a woman, it’s going to be you don’t have what it takes.”
Carter’s announcement opens 52 military specialties some 213,000 positions to female troops
In some ways, the announcement affirms that female troops have been serving on the front lines of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the beginning.
One of them is Maj. Nikki Dean, the executive officer of an attack helicopter battalion at JBLM. She and a co-pilot in a Kiowa helicopter were shot down by rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq’s Diyala province 11 years ago. They survived and were retrieved by military police and infantrymen.
“If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. If it weren’t for me and the aerial fires I provided, I’m sure other soldiers wouldn’t be around,” said Dean, who returned to combat with her co-pilot soon after the incident.
Recently, she was an aviation adviser to one of JBLM’s Stryker brigades. Her brigade was one of the first in the Army to designate a female lieutenant as the commander of a howitzer battery.
“That was practically unheard of,” Dean said. The artillery officer and other young female soldiers are “by far and away some of the toughest young women I’ve seen coming up, some of the most aggressive, too.”
She’s looking forward to a day when one of those officers rises to an Army combat arms command position.
“To me, that would be the definition of success. The point when genuinely it becomes so normal that a woman naturally rises up through the career process and she’s in a leadership position right alongside men. That will be a proud moment,” she said.
The main opposition to Carter’s decision came from the Marines, which produced a study in the past year that suggested mix-gender infantry platoons did not perform as well as all-male units.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, a former Marine Corps commandant, had argued that the Marines should be allowed to keep women out of certain front-line combat jobs.
Carter 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 Marine Corps concerns.
If a woman wants to be in an infantry unit or in a submarine, then those occupational specialties should be open
Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos, director of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs
While noting that, on average, men and women have different physical abilities, Carter said the services must assign tasks and jobs based on ability, rather than on gender. He said that would likely result in small numbers of women in some jobs. Equal opportunity, he said, will not mean equal participation in some specialty jobs. But he added that combat effectiveness is still the main goal, and there will be no quotas.
A senior defense official said the services will have to begin putting plans in place by April 1. Officials at JBLM are awaiting guidance on how to implement the new policy.
On the other side of Interstate 5 from JBLM, women hold two of the top assignments in the Washington National Guard’s Camp Murray headquarters.
Command Chief Master Sgt. Trisha Almond is the Guard’s senior enlisted military service member. The other is Command Chief Warrant Officer 5 Teresa Burgess. She’s an Army pilot and the Guard’s senior-ranking chief warrant officer.
Burgess joined the Army in 1982 and quickly enrolled in flight school. For the first decade of her career, the Army prohibited women from serving in attack helicopter units. She focused on medical evacuation.
She said the military may feel some “hiccups” integrating women in all-male infantry and Special Operations platoons, but she supports the new policy.
“The hiccups are going to come with the culture. Those (military occupational specialties) that aren’t open to women have a certain type of culture to them, and it’s going to be a culture shock,” she said.
Like Dean, she looks forward to seeing women rise into command positions that have been closed to them.
“Not everyone is going to qualify, but for those that do, it’s great that they’ll have the opportunity to do it,” said Burgess, 51.