Gender Neutral: Armed Forces Submit Plans To End 'Exclusion'

This week, all divisions of the U.S. armed forces are supposed to submit their plans for ending "combat exclusion," the rule that says women cannot serve in most combat positions. Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Larry Abramson about the implications of the change.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

This coming week, the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are supposed to submit their plans for ending what's called the combat exclusion. This is the rule that says women cannot serve in most ground combat positions. The Pentagon announced plans to lift the ban earlier this year. The move comes as the military is under growing pressure to deal with an increasing number of sexual assault cases.

Joining me to discuss these issues is NPR's Larry Abramson. Thanks for being here, Larry.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel.

MARTIN: So now that this rule is gone, what exactly do the military forces have to do?

ABRAMSON: Well, basically they have to redefine thousands of positions and come up with standards for those jobs that are gender-neutral. So you can't be excluded from a job simply because you're a woman. But you will have to meet the qualifications for that job and perform certain tasks, possibly, to qualify for the position. That's a lot of work and the services are going to have until 2016 to come up with these new definitions. And they're supposed to open up a roughly a quarter of a million jobs that have been closed to women up till now.

MARTIN: But business doesn't necessarily mean that women will now be present in all of these jobs, right?

ABRAMSON: Right.

MARTIN: Because they may not be barred because they're women but they may not be able to meet the physical standards.

ABRAMSON: Right, and a lot of men can't qualify to be in Special Forces or to be in the Green Berets. So it's going to be the same thing for women. A big question though is if you have really small numbers of women who do qualify, or apply for something like Special Forces, are you going to allow one woman in to some of these units?

Some, the commandant of the Marine Corps, for example, has said that he may want to wait until there is a critical mass. So you have enough women so they don't feel alone. A lot of women I've talked to really object to this idea. They think if somebody is willing to go through what it takes to get to get into these jobs, they should be able to serve, that it's condescending to say, well, they'll feel intimidated being all by themselves in these jobs.

MARTIN: And how do they decide when there's a critical mass?

ABRAMSON: Exactly, yes. I think it goes without saying also that it is going to take a special person to be the first to volunteer for some of these positions. It also goes without saying that you will probably not see women in many positions that do require a great deal of upper body strength, or other skills like having to lift 100 pound artillery shell. It's tough for anybody and it's going to be particularly tough for women.

MARTIN: So, having said that, is there some concern that because there will be this new pressure to make these jobs are more available to women, that the military could end up lowering the standard?

ABRAMSON: There's a lot of concern about that and there's even been legislation proposed that would make sure that standards are not lowered. But I have to say that women are just as concerned that they will be seen as second-class citizens if there are perceived to be different standards for them. So most of the advocates for women that I talk to say: We want the exact same standards. And a lot of the forces, like the Marines, are actually moving in that direction already.

So the question is whether or not you can get rid of the perception that women are treated differently.

MARTIN: Larry, we're coming off of a week there were a lot of headlines about sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military. Any feeling among the people that you've been talking to about whether there's a connection here; about whether ending that combat exclusion rule, whether that will have some kind of effect on sexual assaults in the military?

ABRAMSON: Well, a lot of people think there could be somewhat of a link. As you know, there were lawsuits filed to get rid of this exclusion before the Pentagon decided to do it on its own. And the people who filed the suit said they think that this will improve the climate for everybody, particularly for women. And that when you have better treatment when it comes to simply applying for a job, you will be better treated by your colleagues and they won't view you as a victim.

Now, even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said the same thing. On the other hand, lots of the assaults that we're talking about have been completely outside the combat sphere. They are mirrored by the problem of sexual assault in the larger society, as the military people have pointed out. So we probably shouldn't expect too great an effect from this. But it is a step forward.

MARTIN: And, as the Pentagon reported this past week, the number of sexual assaults is very high.

ABRAMSON: They are very high and they're increasing. And I think that that's their biggest concern, because they have been trying really hard to put pressure on all their commanders, make sure the climate is completely against any form of sexual assault. Nevertheless, the numbers just keep going up. And I think they're baffled, they're frustrated, they can't figure out exactly how they can bring these numbers down.

MARTIN: NPR's Larry Abramson, thanks so much, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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