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Pentagon opens more military jobs to women

Feb. 9, 2012 - 03:21PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 9, 2012 - 03:21PM  |  
Deputy Assistan Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy Vee Penrod, left, and Principal Director for Military Personnel Policy Maj. Gen. Gary Patton brief the media on results of the department's Women in Service Review at the Pentagon on Feb. 9.
Deputy Assistan Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy Vee Penrod, left, and Principal Director for Military Personnel Policy Maj. Gen. Gary Patton brief the media on results of the department's Women in Service Review at the Pentagon on Feb. 9. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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The Pentagon will lift parts of its longtime ban on women serving in combat units, but only a small fraction of the force will be affected, officials announced Thursday.

The change will open up about an additional 1 percent of military jobs to women, but about 20 percent of jobs across the active-duty force will remain restricted to men.

The new rules, likely to take effect this spring, will continue keep most combat career fields off-limits to women, who make up about 15 percent of the active-duty force.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "believes this is the beginning, not the end of the process," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

"The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women," Little said. "While practical barriers do still exist to removing other restrictions on women serving, we are reviewing those to see if more opportunities can be opened. We need time, experience and careful review to ensure that we do so in a way that maximizes the safety and privacy of all service members."

In the coming months, the Army and Marine Corps will work on developing "gender neutral" physical standards for individual jobs and career fields, officials said.

For now, the biggest change will be the elimination of the 1994 ban on women serving in units that "co-locate" with direct ground combat forces, which is defined as those "engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew-served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with hostile personnel."

"This policy has become irrelevant given the modern battle space with its non-linear boundaries," according to the report released Thursday from the Defense Department's Office of Personnel and Readiness.

A prohibition on women serving with combat units "below the brigade level" also was revised to allow women to serve "at the battalion level" in "select occupational specialties," according to the report. That means women can serve on some battalion staff jobs, such as the personnel or intelligence officer, but cannot assume roles that would require company command of an infantry unit.

Several other restrictions will remain. The individual service secretaries will retain authority to restrict women from jobs in the special operations units, from jobs that are deemed "physically demanding," and from assignment to units where "berthing and privacy" accommodations are not feasible.

Further changes may be on the horizon, but will require more study, the report said.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that many women have served in dangerous jobs alongside combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but did so as "attachments," a loophole that allowed them to circumvent the co-location combat exclusion.

The experiences of those women will inform studies of the matter in the future, officials said.

Overall, the new rules will open up about 5 percent of the roughly 250,000 jobs that have been closed to women.

For the Army the change means nearly 14,000 new jobs are available for women, less than 10 percent of the jobs currently closed to them. The Army will be opening six enlisted occupational specialties that were not formerly available to women, including artillery mechanic and maintainers for the Abrams tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

For the Marine Corps, the change will be less significant because the Marines are currently not enforcing the legally optional restrictions on women serving in units that "co-locate" with ground combat units. That's less than 1 percent of the roughly 54,000 Marine Corps jobs currently closed to women. The Marines for the first time will allow women to serve in some career fields in artillery battalions, tank battalions and combat assault battalions.

The Navy will open 60 positions that were previously closed, also less than 1 percent of the nearly 34,000 Navy jobs currently closed to women.

The Air Force will be largely unaffected by the change because more than 99 percent of Air Force jobs are already open to women.

The new policy will take effect automatically, unless Congress takes action to block it, after 30 working days.

The issue of women in combat has tended to revolve around criticism that career and promotion opportunities for women in uniform are limited because they cannot serve in jobs central to wartime missions and, as a result, are underrepresented in the Pentagon's senior leadership.

Defense officials rejected that notion.

"The Department reviewed all available information from the Military Services and did not find indication of females having less than equitable opportunities to cooperate and excel under the current assignment policy," the report said.

Advocates for female troops welcomed the change as a step in the right direction, but criticized it for not opening infantry career fields to women. That will perpetuate the "brass ceiling" that keeps women from top military jobs, said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network.

"This is extremely disappointing," Bhagwati, a former Marine captain, said in a statement about the report. "To continue such a ban is to ignore the talents and leadership that women bring to the military and it further penalizes service women by denying them the opportunity for future promotions and assignments that are given to personnel from combat arms specialties."

Women have played an increasingly important role in the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. A total of 144 female U.S. troops have died in those wars, and 865 have been wounded. Many female troops, including military police and security forces, have taken part in ground combat actions.

The Marines have deployed women alongside infantry troops because female troops are often able to speak with women in traditional societies and obtain intelligence that would be off limits to men.

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