The Pentagon's decision to overturn one of the biggest obstacles to equality in military service opens up a series of daunting questions, sure to challenge the military's ability to maintain readiness while simultaneously adding women to combat roles.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Thursday announcement that he was lifting the ban on women serving in combat positions was met with enthusiasm among female troops and veterans across the country. Many of the 280,000 female veterans have already been thrust into combat situations by virtue of America's ongoing wars and are relieved by what they see is the military's final acknowledgment of current reality.
Now they must wait to see how the service branches plan to send America's women into harm's way.
"The burden used to be, 'Why should a woman serve in a particular specialty?' Now it's 'Why shouldn't a woman serve in a particular specialty?'" said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a joint press briefing.
Two groups of positions will now be available to women. Some units known for forward operations previously banned women from serving in roles they have elsewhere, such as medics, which account for roughly 53,000 positions. Another 184,000 positions strictly exclude women, such as infantry soldiers or special operations commandos.
All armed services will have to submit a plan for how they will study incorporating women into combat by May 15, 2013. The implementation must be finalized by Jan. 1, 2016.
The secretary of Defense will have to personally approve any roles that military branches wish to remain off-limits to women.
"There are still a lot of steps, there is still a lot of opportunity for the service chiefs to try to get certain opportunities closed," says Zoe Bedell, a retired Marine Corps captain with experience patrolling with infantry units in Afghanistan.
Determining whether women can succeed in certain roles may be clear cut. Tank troops, for example, must be able to sit in a confined turret, and lift a roughly 50-pound artillery round off the interior rack, rotate it 180 degrees and insert it into the gun chamber without the luxury of using their legs. If women are unable to perform this task, they will not be eligible for that position.
Other roles are much more nuanced. Two women washed out of the Marine Corps' grueling Infantry Officers Course last fall because they were unable to keep up with the men physically. These standards likely won't change, senior defense officials indicated on Thursday.
However, it remains unclear whether the course is a true representation of the rigors of combat, or if it is designed to weed out only the strongest men.
"There absolutely should be standards, there should be a requirement for the field that really is a realistic requirement of what needs to be done, not just keeping women out," says Bedell, one of the plaintiffs in an ACLU suit against the Pentagon.
The memo Dempsey and Panetta signed Thursday would expressly forbid raising or lowering any standards for the purpose of increasing or decreasing the number of women in a certain occupation, a senior defense official said Thursday.
Other experts believe a natural evolution will help women catch up to the men.
"We really need to look at the history of sports in general and women's physical fitness, which has developed so rapidly over the last 50 years," says Laura Browder, an English professor at the University of Richmond and expert on women in combat.
"If you look at Olympic records and marathon records, women are able to do so much more now than they were decades ago. The physical fitness standards in the military are such that women are very, very eager to meet them. I believe they'll rise to the challenge," says Browder, who authored "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Stories of American Women at War."
The Marine Corps announced in November it would start mandating all women perform actual pull ups as a part of their physical training regime, not the easier flex arm hang previously available to female recruits and officer candidates.
The Defense Department opened up 15,000 roles to women last year, following a trend that now allows women to serve as fighter pilots and on submarines.
"These changes have been implemented and the experience has been very positive," Panetta said.
Declaring that women are equal to men in a combat environment may also correct an issue that has given the Department of Defense a black eye. Dempsey believes that lifting the barrier on women serving in combat may help lessen the frequency of sexual assaults throughout the military.
"The more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat one another equally," he said at the briefing.
Now the military is faced with finding answers to the nuanced details of introducing women formally into combat roles. The Army traditionally bolsters ranks in senior officer and non-commissioned officer ranks for a major transition, so new inductees have help along the way, a defense official said Thursday.
"In order to account for their safety and their success in [combat] units, we have to have enough of them so they can have mentors and leaders above them," Dempsey added.
This is a valuable component to breaking down these kinds of barriers.
"It is very difficult to be a pioneer," Browder says. She interviewed the first women allowed to enter a cadet class at Virginia Military Institute, who dropped out before graduating due to the pressures.
"It's not only physically challenging, you're up against a lot. All eyes are on you," she says. "Over time, more and more women will sign up and it will get easier for them on all kinds of levels."
Dempsey echoed the general benefits of introducing women into a new environment. Omitting specific details, he told reporters about his experience graduating from West Point in 1974, visiting in 1976 when the first female cadets enrolled, teaching in the early 1980s and observing it as the nation's top general.
"Academically, and physically – athletically – it was a far better place," he says. "I attribute that to opening up the academy to women."
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