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Army's plan for women in combat due by May

Feb. 10, 2013 - 10:35AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 10, 2013 - 10:35AM  |  
First Lt. Nalise Gaither, leader of a female engagement team with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, hands out candy to children during a patrol May 8, 2012, Ghazni province, Afghanistan.
First Lt. Nalise Gaither, leader of a female engagement team with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, hands out candy to children during a patrol May 8, 2012, Ghazni province, Afghanistan. (Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod / Army)
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The Army is still months away from opening any previously closed military occupational specialties to women, officials said, as an extensive review of every job in the Army gets underway.

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The Army is still months away from opening any previously closed military occupational specialties to women, officials said, as an extensive review of every job in the Army gets underway.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey on Jan. 24 announced the end of the ban on women in combat roles.

The Defense Department's goal is to open about 237,000 positions to women by 2016. About 120,000 belong to the Army, including thousands of positions in the infantry and armor branches.

The Army and the other services by May 15 must show the defense secretary how they will make the necessary changes. The services then have until Jan. 1, 2016, to execute the plan.

However, questions have been raised about whether the Army will lower its standards to accommodate women, and feedback from soldiers and veterans has ranged from support to warnings that the move will erode unit cohesion and effectiveness, and even endanger lives.

The Army has been working on this effort for at least a year, and the process is careful and deliberate, said Col. Linda Sheimo, chief of the command programs and policies division in the Army personnel directorate (G-1).

"This is not about women in the Army," she said. "This is about getting the best individual for the Army of 2020. The Army is concerned with making sure we have the right standards across the board. We're talking about the best soldier."

To get there, the Army is taking a comprehensive look at what is needed to do a specific job within the Army, with the goal of creating gender-neutral standards.

"Men and women will be required to meet those standards," Sheimo said. "There's a physical aspect, but there's also a mental aspect."

Once the Army determines how it will open a restricted MOS to women, it must submit its request up the chain to senior Army and DoD leaders. Congress also is notified of the request, Sheimo said.

"Any position that is currently closed, we have to submit a request, just as we have in the past, to open those positions," she said. "[DoD] and Congress have a list of requirements on what will have to go forward as we request to open positions."

This includes submitting the justification for opening an MOS, the potential impact, identifying affected positions and units, and a legal analysis.

"We will have a large amount of information provided to support our request to open positions that are not currently open," Sheimo said.

She estimates it could take up to seven months from the time the Army starts processing a request until the time a specialty might be opened.

Training time frame

As the MOS review, conducted by Training and Doctrine Command, moves forward, the Army will be seeking lessons learned from its female soldiers.

Last year, the Army began placing women in 37 battalions across nine brigade combat teams and opened up six previously closed MOSs.

About 280 women were assigned to the 37 battalions, Sheimo said.

The soldiers were placed in MOSs that are open to women, but they didn't previously serve in those units because, regardless of MOS, they were barred from being assigned to combat units below the brigade level.

Between 20 and 35 female soldiers — lieutenants, captains and noncommissioned officers in the grades of sergeant through sergeant first class — were assigned to battalions in each BCT, Sheimo said.

The Army conducted focus groups and multiple surveys with soldiers in those units — men and women— and continues to assess how it's going, Sheimo said.

The feedback and assessments will be used as the Army works to expand this to the other BCTs.

"[Using] what we've learned, we'll make recommendations on how to further open opportunities to women," Sheimo said.

The six MOSs the Army opened to women last year are tied to eliminating a provision that banned women from being "co-located" with units that are directly or routinely involved in combat.

Most of the six MOSs were in the maintenance field, to include M1 Abrams tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle maintainers and artillery mechanics.

About 140 women have enlisted for those six MOSs, Sheimo said.

About 40 of them are in training; the first group will begin advanced individual training in March.

The first fully trained female soldiers in these jobs will get to their first duty station in the summer, Sheimo said.

The Army made sure these soldiers attended training as a cohort and were in training units with female platoon sergeants, she said.

The Army also is surveying these soldiers and their training cadre for lessons learned, Sheimo said.

"The Army will gather information from both the cadre and female soldiers going through the new MOS and incorporate the findings into the recommendations on expanding opportunities to women," Sheimo said.

Sheimo, who has been in the Army since 1977, said she has seen the Army change over the years.

"I've had the opportunity to watch this Army change, and see men and women given the opportunity to be successful if they're willing to take on the difficult challenges," she said. "That's why my focus in this is not about women in combat. It's about getting the best soldier for our future Army, because that's what we should have."

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