Two soldiers maintain security for a Female Engagement Team chief during a consultation Sept. 18 at a clinic in the Tarnak wa Jaldak district, Zabul province, Afghanistan. (Sgt. Kandi Huggins / Army)
Opening up the combat arms career fields for women will result in a new array of job-specific physical standards that will apply to both men and women, the Pentagon’s top personnel and readiness official said Tuesday.
“You, as the man or woman, need to carry your load. So when we develop the standard, the standard is not just going to be for the females. The standard is going to be the standard,” said Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Wright is overseeing the process of opening up all military jobs to women by 2016, including more than 200,000 billets that make up the core of the ground-level combat forces in the Army and Marine Corps. The four services are developing a new set of job-specific physical standards.
She said military officials are consulting with fitness experts, occupational therapists and other medical and health professionals to ensure that the emerging physical standard will be based on “science” rather than “opinion.”
Wright, a retired Army National Guard major general, used the example of a Marine infantry officer who must be able to carry a heavy pack on a long trek to develop the stamina needed for grueling infantry missions.
“If he can’t accomplish that mission, he is a failure as an infantry officer. If a female can’t accomplish the exact same standard, she is a failure at being an infantry officer and they both — should they not be able to accomplish the mission — put the mission at risk and put their teammates at risk,” Wright said.
Any exemptions to the rule opening all jobs to qualified women will have to be approved by the secretary of defense. Some officials from special operations commands have expressed concern about the impact of women on unit cohesion of the small teams that make up the bulk of the spec ops force.
The Marine Corps has moved swiftly to integrate women into the infantry. While no women have successfully completed the infantry training courses, 12 are now enrolled in the enlisted course in North Carolina. Earlier this year, 10 women enrolled in the infantry officers training course in Virginia, but for a variety of reasons, none completed it.
The Navy also recently set in motion plans to open up jobs with riverine units, which have traditionally been limited to men.
Wright spoke on Oct. 29 at a conference in Washington about diversity. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who was also at the conference, said Congress will closely oversee the integration of women into combat jobs to ensure that overall standards are not lowered.
“For the history of the military, those standards have been determined by males,” Cardin said at the conference. “There will be changes — maybe men should feel more threatened than women.”
Ultimately, Wright said, expanding the role of women in the military will improve readiness.
“We talk about diversity in the terms of race and gender and ethnicity, but it is much more than that in my mind,” she said. “It is diversity of thought, of ability, of background, of culture and of skills. Not just who you are or what religion you come from or the color of your skin but your thought process, how you grew up, what you can add to the greater good because of your background.”