STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today is also the deadline for all U.S. military forces to submit plans to end the longstanding Pentagon rule barring women from critical ground-combat units. The end of the combat exclusion, as it's called, will open up more than 200,000 jobs in the military to women. It will not end the debate over the role of women in the Armed Forces. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The Pentagon announced the end of the combat exclusion back in January. Now comes the hard part: developing gender-neutral standards so women can qualify for all jobs, including combat infantry. In this video, Michael P. Barrett, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, left no doubt about how he expects his Marines to react when women show up in combat units.
SGT. MAJ. MICHAEL P. BARRETT: You are our brothers' and sisters' keeper. You are responsible for looking out for the Marine on your left and on your right, regardless of gender.
ABRAMSON: Any questions? Actually, the Marines, in particular, face lots of questions about how they will integrate more women in the next three years. All the forces still have until 2016 before they must fully open positions.
Anne Coughlin is a law professor at the University of Virginia. She filed suit against the exclusion before the Pentagon decided to drop it.
ANNE COUGHLIN: There is the prospect not only of the process being slow but that at the end of the process, there may well be some jobs that remain closed to women.
ABRAMSON: The Pentagon has indicated that some specialties may not open up right away - or ever. But the presumption is, positions must be open unless there's a good reason to keep them closed. Coughlin is also concerned about statements indicating that the military may want to wait for a critical mass of qualified women, and may not want individuals to serve as the only woman in a unit.
COUGHLIN: And my question to that is well, why not? If she's fit, and she's capable, and she wants to make the ultimate sacrifice, we may well need her there. And I argue, equality principles demand it as well.
ABRAMSON: For the services, the big challenge right now is scrutinizing thousands of job descriptions. Gender can no longer be the decisive factor, but physical strength can be. Greg Jacob is with the Service Women's Action Network, which backs the end of the combat exclusion. A former Marine captain, Jacob says strength is key to many infantry jobs.
GREG JACOB: Like, for example, the effective casualty radius of a hand grenade is 15 meters. I mean, that doesn't change. So in order to be able to employ a hand grenade without blowing yourself up, you have to be able to throw it 15 meters.
ABRAMSON: If a requirement like that keeps women out, Jacob says, that's OK, as long as women have the opportunity to volunteer and a chance to train up. The Pentagon promises that re-examining job requirements will not lead to weaker standards. But some say that is inevitable. Mac Owens teaches at the Naval War College.
MAC OWENS: Women have done wonderful jobs in the military in many things. I just don't think they're necessary in the infantry.
ABRAMSON: Owens says having women in combat will also erode unit cohesion.
OWENS: Cohesion, I think, is based on sort of mutual trust. Sexual tensions and things like that, which are possible, can undermine that cohesion.
ABRAMSON: Those who challenge the combat exclusion point out that women have served in harm's way in Afghanistan and other wars, for many years. The end of the combat exclusion means that in the future, they will finally get the credit they deserve. But clearly, it will take a special kind of courage to be the first woman in any combat unit. Former Marine Zoe Bedell served alongside a combat unit in Afghanistan, but never received the same recognition as her male counterparts. She says she faced skepticism at first.
ZOE BEDELL: Our experience was that once they saw that we could perform, they were - they treated us just like other Marines.
ABRAMSON: Serving in combat together could help men see women as equals, and it's hoped that shift in attitude could help address another big problem facing the Pentagon - that of sexual assault in the military.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.