Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an order today that formally allows women to take on combat roles in the military.
In signing the order, the Pentagon swept away generations of limits for women in their military participation, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put many women on the front lines anyways. The positions included in this order specifically include infantry, front-line artillery, armor, special operations, and pararescue, as well as Navy positions on smaller attack submarines.
Even with this order, there is no guarantee that women will take on these positions. There is no indication that military leaders will lower the physical standards for some of the more arduous front-line duties, like tank loading, just to ensure there are women present.
Still, the move more accurately reflects the reality of this generation’s military experience, where 280,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and 152 women have been killed. Female helicopters have piloted aircraft into and out of combat zones, female medics have treated wounded soldiers on battlefields, and the Marines even set up all-women teams to speak to Afghan women to help gather intelligence.
The move would open up 237,000 positions that were previously inaccessible to women, in a military with 1.4 million men and women currently on active duty. Most of the newly opened positions would be infantry.
The service branches will be required to come up with plans to integrate women into combat positions by May 15, and to request exemptions. It is possible that elite units such as the Army’s Rangers and Green Berets and the Navy’s SEALs will request exemptions to the policy. All branches will have until January 2016 to make their argument for exemptions.
The biggest impact this move may have years down the road is improving women’s odds of advancing in the military. For men, combat tours of duty are often seen as important for advancement, and now women will have that chance to gain that credential as well. Currently, women comprise 15% of the overall force, and 17% of all officers.
– Benjamin Nanamaker, InvestorPolitics Editor
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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