Will The U.S. Military Really Welcome Women On Battlefields?

Now that the U.S. military has officially agreed to allow women into combat roles, let's examine how quickly the various branches are moving to make that happen. The overall process is expected to take years.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Wednesday, and it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. "Everyone is entitled to a chance." Those were the words of then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January, when he announced plans for women to serve on the front lines in combat roles long closed to them. Yesterday, the Pentagon offered some details. For one thing, women can begin training for the Navy's inland water combat units as early as next month.

But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some women wonder whether they'll really be welcomed on the battlefield.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Among the U.S. armed forces, the Marines have the lowest percentage of women, at just over 6 percent. And the combat infantryman is the heart of the corps. So it's not surprising that the Marines have developed a slow process for seeing which jobs can be opened to women. Marine Col. John Aytes helped develop the plan.

COL. JOHN AYTES: We are continuing to physically test male and female Marines; we're continuing to assess the integration of those female Marines assigned to selected ground-combat units; and we're using this very deliberate methodology to ensure we do this right.

ABRAMSON: The Marines are hoping that testing will lead to a useful exam that will tell them who is ready to enter a combat position. Aytes said for some jobs, like tank gunner, there is no substitute for physical strength.

AYTES: A tank gunner must reach over to the rack, lift that 55-pound shell from the rack, pull it out, flip it over, and insert it into the breach.

ABRAMSON: So any woman who wants to be a Marine tank gunner will have to be able to do just that. But those physical standards are not the only barrier facing women waiting to serve in combat roles. The Special Operations Command, home to the SEALS and other elite units, will be researching what it calls social science impacts of integrating women into small teams, in remote environments.

ABRAMSON: Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick says he's getting resistance from people in small operational detachments, or ODAs.

MAJ. GEN. BENNET SACOLICK: I hear the rank and file. Their concerns are, you've got a 12-men ODA in an isolated case; what are the implications there?

ABRAMSON: And that attitude worries women who have been pushing for the end of the combat exclusion, the policy that has kept women out of combat jobs. Anne Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Virginia, filed suit against that policy before the Pentagon decided to end it.

ANNE COUGHLIN: That assertion made me worry a great deal because it seems, again, to be the case that even if women are fit, if there's enough men who don't want them there, that is going to - as he put it, complicate integration.

ABRAMSON: Coughlin's suit is still alive. She'll be watching, to make sure the military does not erect arbitrary barriers to women. So will the American Civil Liberties Union, which also has a suit pending. The ACLU's Ariela Migdal says the plan is a good start. She's glad to see that the first combat jobs will go to women who have already been serving unofficially in combat-related positions.

ARIELA MIGDAL: To capitalize on their experience, and to provide a path forward for them for combat leadership, so that we don't lose the battle-tested women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ABRAMSON: No matter how long this process takes, it has begun. Maj. Gen. Sacolick, of special ops, admits combat isn't just about strength any longer.

SACOLICK: We're looking for smart, qualified operators that can speak and learn a foreign language, and understand culture. The days of Rambo are over.

ABRAMSON: The services have until 2016 to open up all positions, or to prove to their leaders that some roles can only be performed by men.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: