National Security


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

When Pentagon leaders announced they would open ground combat jobs to women, they talked about giving women an equal chance in the workplace, the military workplace.

Here's chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: We are acting to expand the opportunities for women to serve in the United States Armed Forces.

CORNISH: The move made on principle also has practical considerations. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the military needs qualified people to fill its ranks.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The military is still looking for a few good men. It's just harder to find them. Here's General Dempsey in an interview with NPR, just after the Pentagon directed that women no longer be excluded from ground combat jobs.

DEMPSEY: I think it's fairly common knowledge that our population of military-age young men who qualify for the military is declining.

BOWMAN: That's because too many have brushes with the law. They drop out of high school, have drug problems, and add to that a rising obesity rate. So General Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs looked out to the end of the decade, 2020, and decided they had to recruit more women.

DEMPSEY: And so, as a very practical matter, we decided if in 2020 we're going to need these young ladies and we're going to need to attract as much diversity and as much talent as we can possibly attract, if that's going to be the case, what are we waiting for?

BOWMAN: A very practical matter, because less than one in four young people - male and female - can actually meet the standards for military enlistment today. Men tend to disqualify themselves more than women. Young men account for three-quarters of all arrests. And in all 50 states, males have a higher high school drop out rate than females.

KATHLEEN WELKER: Recruiters anecdotally will have fewer issues with a female applicant than they will with a male.

BOWMAN: Kathleen Welker is with the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky. She says opening more combat jobs to women will help the Army meet its goals.

WELKER: It expands the pool of candidates who are eligible to enlist across the board.

BOWMAN: Now the question is this: Will women want to sign up for the ground fight and try for those new jobs in the infantry, armor, and artillery units?

Bernard Rostker is a former undersecretary of Defense for personnel. He's doubtful many young women will choose those careers.

BERNARD ROSTKER: We're not prepared to force women into combat positions. It's a very non-traditional role. The numbers would most likely be quite small.

BOWMAN: Why would it be small?

ROSTKER: Because it is a non-traditional job. It is a physically demanding job. But it's an empirical question and we will see how many women actually apply to go into the military.

BOWMAN: There's one more hurdle: Whether any woman who does apply can meet the tough physical standards for ground combat. General Dempsey and the other military leaders will soon review the training program. He said some of the existing standards, which include everything from pull-ups to carrying heavy loads, need to be revised.

DEMPSEY: There are existing standards, many of which haven't been dusted off in a very long time. Many of which have been kind of narrowly focused just on physical standards, but without the companion piece of psychologically and intellectual standards.

BOWMAN: Statements like that are leading some military officers to complain privately that combat training will be watered down to allow more women to pass.

Meanwhile, some women already are trying to meet the existing physical standards. Last fall, two female Marines were the first to try and complete the grueling 12-week-long Infantry Officer Course. They failed, along with about 20 percent of the men. This week, two more female Marines will see if they can make it.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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