2016 Deadline for Integrating Women Into Combat Roles Too Long, Some Say

Delay could keep combat veterans out of newly-opened jobs.

Female Engagement Team member Cpl. Michelle Berglin posts security outside a compound during a final engagement training at Camp Pendleton, Jan. 11, in preparation for an upcoming spring deployment with I Marine Expeditionary Force.

Cpl. Michelle Berglin posts security outside a compound during a in preparation for an upcoming deployment. Experienced female soldiers like Berglin won't be allowed into new combat roles until 2016.

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Experienced female troops will be a key component for the military's new plan to open its doors fully to women, but they might not stick around long enough for the Pentagon to ask for their help.

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Each of the service branches unveiled strategies Tuesday to either incorporate women into combat jobs or prove why some positions should remain off limits. One of the first crucial steps, they said, would be to shuffle experienced, senior female troops into schools and units to help oversee the transition for a new, more gender-neutral military.

In its plan, the Army stated it would "ensure a sufficient number of female leaders are available to serve as role models and mentors in the previously all male units." The Marine Corps will to create what it calls a Schoolhouse Cadre of mid-career female Marines to staff training programs that will open up to women. The Navy says it will assign senior women to newly opened schools and units to provide "leadership, mentorship and support."

The services all have until September 2015 to complete their plans to integrate women (or ask for an exemption) to be ready to step off by Jan. 1, 2016. But that's a long time in military terms.

"I'm not surprised that they're going to take until 2016. They're going to take as long as possible to do this," says Zoe Bedell, a former Marine captain and Afghanistan veteran. She served on a Female Engagement Team, which patrol with infantry units to work with locals.

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Bedell is also one of the plaintiffs in an ongoing American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the military to open all jobs to women.

2016 is almost three years away, she points out, which is roughly the same time as the average military contract for service. Scores of women like her may retire during that time if they feel the military is dragging its feet.

"Obviously some preparation needs to be done," she tells U.S. News, adding concern that combat experience like hers will become less relevant if the military doesn't use it soon.

"Doing this right takes time," said Juliet Beyler, the director of the Defense Department's Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management. Each of the services plans to conduct studies of the physical, behavioral, social and cultural effects of integrating women into combat before it thrusts them into new roles.

The military has already incorporated women into previously closed positions. The Navy introduced women to some submarines in 2009 and paved the way with senior enlisted sailors and new officers from the service academies. It says it will apply this lesson to opening other fields to females.

Special operations units are also canvassing their existing members> to determine how they would feel about having women on long-range, isolated missions. One of the military's top commandos says Special Operations Command has some genuine concerns that must be addressed before it can make a recommendation to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

"Our approach is going to be integrated, but it's going to be incremental as well as scientific" said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the U.S. Army deputy chief of staff responsible for developing and managing the Army's personnel policies, while speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday. "We're not waiting until the very end, we're going to do this over a period of time."

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The ACLU has extended the time for the Pentagon to respond to its suit, but remains concerned about the military stalling.

"Study things, but don't use the results of your study to continue to keep women out," Bedell says. Support for pioneering female troops also does not have to come from women.

"Women going into these fields know they're going to be pioneers," she says. "It's a bit harder, it might deter some women, it's still going to be slow, but you understand that if you're that entry person you're going to be a little bit on your own."