US & World

Women can now serve in front-line ground combat positions, Pentagon says

Pentagon chief Ash Carter is expected to announce that women can now serve in frontline combat posts. Here Carolina Ortiz moves away from a 155 mm artillery piece after loading it during a live-fire exercise at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., earlier this year, in a a months-long study of how women might perform in ground combat jobs.
Pentagon chief Ash Carter is expected to announce that women can now serve in frontline combat posts. Here Carolina Ortiz moves away from a 155 mm artillery piece after loading it during a live-fire exercise at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., earlier this year, in a a months-long study of how women might perform in ground combat jobs.
David Gilkey/NPR

Saying America's military must draw from "the broadest possible pool of talent," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that women in the U.S. military – including the Army and Marines – can now serve in combat posts.

The formal process to open combat jobs to women began in January of 2013; in finishing that process, Carter acknowledged that in recent years, U.S. women have fought — and sometimes given their lives — in combat posts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carter made the announcement at noon Thursday; the event was not attended by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, whose branch of the service was the only one to request the ability to make exceptions to the new rule. Dunford is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Carter said the new rule means women in the military who are deemed fit for combat can be assigned to those roles, rather than relying on their own initiative to seek roles in combat. The lack of "absolute choice" for posts and assignments is part of being in the military, he said.

Earlier in the briefing, Carter said women can now vie for spots on Navy SEALS teams and other elite units.

Answering a question about Joint Chiefs chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford's resistance to the idea of full integration of women in combat roles, Carter said he "strongly agreed" with Dunford's idea that the way implementation is handled is the key to the new policy's success.

He added that there's "a great value" to implementing the process on a joint basis, with all branches of the service included.

Carter did not directly respond to what flaws he found in Dunford's analysis.

In September, the Marine Corps released results of a study that found all-male units perform better in combat than do mixed units.

As reporters at the briefing note, Dunford did not attend Thursday's announcement.

Listing details about how the new rules would take effect, Carter said no quotas will be imposed on women's numbers in the military. He added that the military will also have to dispel the idea — held by some men and women in the military, he said — that women might be included in a unit for any reason other than their qualifications.

Carter said that women's qualifications and the ability to perform combat roles will be main priorities as the new rules are implemented.

The process of integrating women into combat roles must begin in the next 30 days, he said.

Carter said the Pentagon can't afford to omit half of America's population from consideration.

He added that since the 1970s, women have been able to attend U.S. service academies, and that in the early 1990s their military roles were expanded, with some exceptions allowed to exclude the.

"There will be no exceptions," Carter said of today's change in the rules.

The formal announcement comes as more female servicemembers have been training for roles on the front lines. In August, two female soldiers graduated from the U.S. Army's Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga. Currently, women make up less than 10 percent of Marine Corps personnel.

The announcement comes more than 20 years after women were officially excluded from serving in small ground combat units back in 1994. It also comes three years after a group of servicewomen sued the Pentagon and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2012. Two months after that suit was filed, Panetta announced that women would be gradually allowed to serve combat roles.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.