Pentagon Debuts Plans For Opening Combat Positions To Women

On Tuesday, the Pentagon released plans for opening most military jobs to women. The armed services have until 2016 to open the positions, which have been closed to women for decades. The military services can keep some specialties closed to women, but must give a good reason for such exceptions.

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Today, the Pentagon outlined its plans for opening up nearly all military jobs to women, including combat positions. The military has until 2016 to rescind what's known as the combat exclusion, which has kept women out of combat jobs.

Joining us now to discuss these plans is NPR's Larry Abramson. And, Larry, what kinds of jobs will women be able to try to serve in? And how long is it going to take for the military services to open those jobs up?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, some of these jobs are going to open up almost right away. The Navy's Riverine Force, which is the combat force for small waterways that's been closed to women is going to open up in July. And the Navy and Air Force are basically saying that by 2016, they will have virtually zero jobs that are not open to women. So those two forces are really taking the lead. And they're saying that it's really only going to take a couple of years.

BLOCK: OK, that's the Navy and the Air Force. What about the Army and the Marines? They've had the largest number of combat positions closed to women.

ABRAMSON: Right and then, of course, infantry positions have always been the argument against having women in the Marines and the Army. They are still working on the gender-neutral standards that they need. So before, they just kept women out because they were women. Now, the only justification for keeping a woman out of an infantry position will be if they can't do a certain job; if they can't lift something or if they aren't fit enough to make a standard.

And in order to determine that, they have to develop these gender-neutral standards - what the military hasn't really had. They're saying that this process is going to take a couple of years. I think some people are a little bit surprised that with all of the preparation that the military has had, that they don't have these standards already.

BLOCK: And you mentioned the physical standards. Larry, in particular what does the Pentagon's plan say about jobs where physical strength is really critical?

ABRAMSON: Right, well, so one of the examples came up is if you have to lift a tank round - a 50, 75-pound tank round - and you have to be able to do that job. And I think that the representative said, yes, absolutely, that will be an exclusion. If you can't do that you can't get in. But if a woman can do that then she will be able to get into these sorts of jobs.

The order from on high is that they cannot water down the standards. They can't come up with separate standards for women. And the women who have agitated for this do not want separate standards. They want to be treated as regular members of the Armed Forces. And if they can qualify to be a SEAL or something like that, then they want to be able to get in.

That's going to take some doing, though, because there will still be excluded areas, where some commanders are able to justify excluding them. And I think the SEALs and the Special Forces, that's still going to be - it's a questionable area.

BLOCK: Here's a hypothetical for you, Larry. If there are units where it turns out only one woman qualifies, would she be allowed to serve as the only female member of that unit?

ABRAMSON: Representative of the Army said, you know, if we open a job, anybody who applies in qualifies is going to get into that job. We're not going to have special, you know, critical mass requirements or something like that for women. Now, in fact, we'll have to see whether that really happens and whether, again, in the SEALs, where you have an elite unit with 12 people, whether you're going to allow one woman in.

A lot of women who, again, have been involved in suits for these things say: let me at it - you know, I will deal with this. And many of them say they've already been serving as the only one or two women in forces in Afghanistan, that have been working together for quite a long time.

BLOCK: So this wouldn't change that, anyway.

ABRAMSON: Right.

BLOCK: NPR's Larry Abramson, we were talking about the Pentagon's plans for opening up the combat positions to women. Larry, thanks.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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