Panetta: 'Everyone Entitled To A Chance' At Combat

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has scrapped the ground combat exclusion for women, potentially opening up as many as a quarter million jobs, mostly in the Army and Marine Corps. But now it's up to the military services to put it into effect. Many questions remain as to what standards they will come up with and how many women will be able to meet them.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is set to leave his job at the Pentagon, and it seems he saved one very big initiative for his final days. Panetta has ordered an end to the ban on women in ground combat. And that, he says, could open tens of thousands of jobs to women in the military.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: The bottom line is that further integration of women will occur expeditiously.

SIEGEL: Secretary Panetta gave the Armed Services until mid-May to submit detailed plans about how they'll implement the change.

In a few moments, we'll hear from a woman who filed suit against the Pentagon to end the rule about women in combat. That's after this report on today's announcement by NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Secretary Panetta announced the decision at the Pentagon, seated next to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey. And Dempsey recalled his time as a commander in Iraq in 2003. One day he hopped into a Humvee and slapped the leg of the soldier standing above him and manning the turret machine gun.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: And I said, who are you, and she leaned down and said, I'm Amanda. And I said, oh, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMPSEY: So female turret gunner protecting division commander. And it's from that point on that I realized something had changed.

BOWMAN: Now, the Pentagon wants to change even more, opening up jobs that have been barred to women in the infantry, armor and artillery fields, nearly all in the Army and Marine Corps.

Secretary Panetta made clear that he would not be lowering any standards in opening up jobs to women.

PANETTA: Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance.

BOWMAN: And the secretary said the services will now determine which physical requirements both men and women must meet.

PANETTA: If they can meet the qualification for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.

BOWMAN: Now, the question comes down to what qualifications are needed for each ground combat job. Figuring out standards that are fair but don't lower the quality of the force could prove a challenge. The Marine Corps, for example, has a grueling 12-week course for officers, a prerequisite for leading infantry units.

The first two women tried to make it through the course last year and failed. No other women have tried the course since, and a defense official said the standards would not change. But General Dempsey said that as the services work to include women, officials will question whether some standards are too high.

DEMPSEY: If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high? With the direct combat exclusion provision in place, we never had to have that conversation.

BOWMAN: The services can seek special exceptions that would continue to bar women from certain jobs, most likely Green Berets or Navy SEALS, which demand especially rigorous training. That exception would require the personal approval of the defense secretary.

While the joint chiefs have all signed off on the plan, there is some grumbling in the ranks. Former Marine infantryman Ryan Smith, writing in the Wall Street Journal, wondered whether women could make it in the dirty and dismal world of combat. But many already have.

Air Force Major Mary Jennings Hegar served in Afghanistan. She filed suit to overturn the combat exclusion policy for women.

MAJOR MARY JENNINGS HEGAR: Big picture, I would like for people to be making choices based on capability instead of gender.

BOWMAN: In 2009, Major Hegar's helicopter crashed. She was wounded but shielded other Americans and fired on the Taliban. She earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with valor and a Purple Heart. Later, she wanted a job as a combat controller, working on the ground with infantry units and calling in air strikes. She didn't get it. That job was closed to women.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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