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Will The U.S. Military Really Welcome Women On Battlefields?


It's Wednesday, and it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. "Everyone is entitled to a chance." Those were the words of then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January, when he announced plans for women to serve on the front lines in combat roles long closed to them. Yesterday, the Pentagon offered some details. For one thing, women can begin training for the Navy's inland water combat units as early as next month.

But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some women wonder whether they'll really be welcomed on the battlefield.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Among the U.S. armed forces, the Marines have the lowest percentage of women, at just over 6 percent. And the combat infantryman is the heart of the corps. So it's not surprising that the Marines have developed a slow process for seeing which jobs can be opened to women. Marine Col. John Aytes helped develop the plan.

COL. JOHN AYTES: We are continuing to physically test male and female Marines; we're continuing to assess the integration of those female Marines assigned to selected ground-combat units; and we're using this very deliberate methodology to ensure we do this right.

ABRAMSON: The Marines are hoping that testing will lead to a useful exam that will tell them who is ready to enter a combat position. Aytes said for some jobs, like tank gunner, there is no substitute for physical strength.

AYTES: A tank gunner must reach over to the rack, lift that 55-pound shell from the rack, pull it out, flip it over, and insert it into the breach.

ABRAMSON: So any woman who wants to be a Marine tank gunner will have to be able to do just that. But those physical standards are not the only barrier facing women waiting to serve in combat roles. The Special Operations Command, home to the SEALS and other elite units, will be researching what it calls social science impacts of integrating women into small teams, in remote environments.

ABRAMSON: Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick says he's getting resistance from people in small operational detachments, or ODAs.

MAJ. GEN. BENNET SACOLICK: I hear the rank and file. Their concerns are, you've got a 12-men ODA in an isolated case; what are the implications there?

ABRAMSON: And that attitude worries women who have been pushing for the end of the combat exclusion, the policy that has kept women out of combat jobs. Anne Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Virginia, filed suit against that policy before the Pentagon decided to end it.

ANNE COUGHLIN: That assertion made me worry a great deal because it seems, again, to be the case that even if women are fit, if there's enough men who don't want them there, that is going to - as he put it, complicate integration.

ABRAMSON: Coughlin's suit is still alive. She'll be watching, to make sure the military does not erect arbitrary barriers to women. So will the American Civil Liberties Union, which also has a suit pending. The ACLU's Ariela Migdal says the plan is a good start. She's glad to see that the first combat jobs will go to women who have already been serving unofficially in combat-related positions.

ARIELA MIGDAL: To capitalize on their experience, and to provide a path forward for them for combat leadership, so that we don't lose the battle-tested women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ABRAMSON: No matter how long this process takes, it has begun. Maj. Gen. Sacolick, of special ops, admits combat isn't just about strength any longer.

SACOLICK: We're looking for smart, qualified operators that can speak and learn a foreign language, and understand culture. The days of Rambo are over.

ABRAMSON: The services have until 2016 to open up all positions, or to prove to their leaders that some roles can only be performed by men.

Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.