Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently reflected on his tenure during an interview with USA Today. (Jacquelyn Martin / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — Whatever standards the military establishes for its most elite units, women will most likely meet them, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicts.
Panetta, who last month ordered the services to open all ground combat jobs to women by 2016, told USA TODAY that he would be stunned if women could not qualify for the military's most demanding jobs. The services are developing gender-neutral standards that troops must meet to qualify for jobs. That could open 230,000 posts, many of them in the infantry, to women.
Elite units such as Army Rangers, Green Berets and Navy SEALs will also establish physical and mental benchmarks for their members. The services may ask for waivers to keep their forces all male, but the Defense secretary would have to approve the request under the new policy.
"Let's look at the standards they develop," Panetta said. "That will tell us a lot. I would be very surprised these days that there aren't women out there who can't meet whatever standards we put in place. This is a very different world."
Panetta talked about women in combat, extending military benefits to same-sex-spouses and his plans for retirement on Friday. The day before, Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice to succeed Panetta, was grilled at his Senate confirmation hearing. Panetta, 74, plans to leave office in the next few weeks. The Senate may vote on Hagel's nomination next week.
After the interview, Panetta paused for a moment to display a favorite memento: a brick that Navy SEALs brought back from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. It bears the stamp A 1.
"They brought back a brick and bin Laden," he said.
The historic move to allow women to fight alongside men in the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs stemmed from Panetta's belief that nobody should be denied a chance to succeed because of an "artificial barrier." That belief was shaped by the experience of his Italian-immigrant parents and his civil rights post in the federal government early in his career, he said.
He says running the Pentagon for the past two years, and traveling extensively to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, confirmed that women were ready and in fact already had been serving in combat.
"They were there putting their lives on the line," Panetta said. "The reality I saw was that they were doing a helluva job in what they were doing. I just found it difficult to believe that we should maintain a barrier that basically says under no circumstances should you get a chance to be a combat soldier or Marine."
He shared his views with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Within a year, the policy was changed.
"I nudged, we talked and they carried the ball across the goal line," Panetta said.
Panetta oversaw another major social shift for the military, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve provided they kept secret their sexuality.
Now that openly gay and lesbian troops can serve, and in some states marry one another, the issue of extending military benefits to their spouses is coming to the fore. The federal Defense of Marriage Act prevents the extension of some benefits, including some regarding health care, to same-sex spouses. But there are other benefits, including participation in family-readiness groups on military bases, privileges at commissaries and photo IDs, that the military could provide.
Troops and commanders, Panetta said, are not resisting the extension of benefits but need to be educated about them.
"The key to making (repeal of) ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' work was we were able to prepare the force and be able to educate them so that they became much more accepting of what was going to take place," Panetta said. "When it comes to benefits, we've got to lay some of the same groundwork.
"You've just got to educate people. People who are serving in the military and putting their lives on the line deserve some of the benefits that go with that. We've just got to be able to tie those two together in a way that the military understands and accepts."
In retirement, Panetta plans to return to his family in Monterey, Calif. There, he and his wife, Sylvia, run the Panetta Center for Public Policy. He plans to teach and moderate lectures.
He'll also write. But don't expect a page-turning, tell-all from a man who oversaw the CIA when it killed bin Laden and who served as Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
"I'm not interested in doing kiss-and-tell books," Panetta said. "If you think now would be a good story, you should have heard me coming out of the Clinton administration.
"I went to a publisher after I got out of being chief of staff. And I said I'd like to write a book about the role of chief of staff. And they said, no, no, no."