Today, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed a memo to lift the ban on women in military combat operations during a press conference at the Pentagon. Shown above is Army Lt. Col. Tamatha Patterson looking on during the signing. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Bradley C. Church)
Follow-up questions and answers on this issue will be provided in a separate post.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA:
Good afternoon. One of my priorities as secretary of defense has been to remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform. Our nation was built on the premise of the citizen soldier. In our democracy, I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation. And every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity.
To that end, I’ve been working closely with Gen. Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We’ve been working for well over a year to examine, how can we expand the opportunities for women in the armed services?
It’s clear to all of us that women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission of defending the nation. Women represent 15 percent of the force, over 200,000. They’re serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield. The fact is that they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission.
Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism. A hundred and fifty-two women in uniform have died serving this nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Female servicemembers have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans.
However, many military positions, particularly in ground combat units, still remain closed to women because of the 1994 direct ground combat definition and assignment rule. Military and civilian leaders in this department have been taking a hard look at that rule based on the experiences of the last decade.
In early 2012, we announced a series of modifications to that rule which opened up more than 14,000 new positions to women, including positions that were collocated with ground combat units and certain positions in ground combat units below the battalion [brigade] level. These changes have been implemented, and the experience has been very positive.
Every time I visited the warzone, every time I’ve met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I’ve been impressed with the fact that everyone — everyone, men and women alike — everyone is committed to doing the job. They’re fighting and they’re dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.
The chairman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I believe that we must open up service opportunities for women as fully as possible. And therefore today, Gen. Dempsey and I are pleased to announce that we are eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women and we are moving forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service. In a few moments after we speak, we’ll both sign a memo that will rescind the ’94 barrier.
Our purpose is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable servicemembers, regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs. If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.
Having conducted an extensive review, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have developed a very thoughtful approach to integrating women into occupations across the force. I strongly agree with their guiding principles and the specific milestones that they propose.
We are all committed to implementing this change without compromising readiness or morale or our warfighting capabilities. Positions will be open to women following service reviews, using the Joint Chiefs’ guiding principles, and following congressional notification procedures established by law.
For this change and policy to succeed, it must be done in a responsible, measured, and a coherent way. I’ll let Gen. Dempsey describe our plan of action in greater detail. But the bottom line is that further integration of women will occur expeditiously, even as we recognize the need to take time to institutionalize changes of this importance.
The steps we are announcing today are significant. And in many ways, they are an affirmation of where we have been heading as a department for more than 10 years. Nevertheless, it will take leadership and it will take professionalism to effectively implement these changes. I am confident in our ability to do that, because I am confident in the leadership that Gen. Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have demonstrated throughout this process.
This has truly been a team effort, and I deeply admire the extremely thorough and considerate approach that they have taken. I want to express my deepest thanks to Marty Dempsey for his leadership and all of the service chiefs who have been working on this issue and as a group came forward with the recommendation that we are implementing today.
Our men and women in uniform could not ask for more from their leaders in uniform. I fundamentally believe that our military is more effective when success is based solely on ability and qualifications and on performance.
When I look at my grandsons and my granddaughters — you know, I’ve got six grandchildren, three grandsons and three granddaughters — I want each of them to have the same chance to succeed at whatever they want to do. In life, as we all know, there are no guarantees of success. Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.
By committing ourselves to that principle, we are renewing our commitment to the American values our servicemembers fight and die to defend. As secretary, when I’ve gone to Bethesda to visit wounded warriors, and when I’ve gone to Arlington to bury our dead, there is no distinction that’s made between the sacrifices of men and women in uniform. They serve, they’re wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality.
By opening up more opportunities for people to serve in uniform, we are making our military stronger and we are making America stronger. We honor — we deeply honor all of those past generations — combat soldiers and Marines, who fought and died for our freedom. And in many ways, their sacrifice has ensured that the next greatest generation will be one of men and women who will fight and die together to protect this nation. And that is what freedom is all about.
GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY:
Today, we are enacting — we are acting to expand the opportunities for women to serve in the United States armed forces and to better align our policies with the experiences that we have had over the past decade of war. Ultimately, we’re acting to strengthen the joint force.
Congress acted first in 1948 by legislating that women became a part — a permanent part of the armed forces. Last year, as the secretary mentioned, we acted to open thousands of mission-essential occupations at more echelons and in more ground combat units. After months of work, the Joint Chiefs and I recently submitted to the secretary our unanimous recommendation to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women. In so doing, we’re acting to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.
The Joint Chiefs share common cause on the need to start this now and to do it right. We’re committed to a purposeful and a principled approach. Specifically, we will extend opportunities to women in a way that maintains readiness, morale, and unit cohesion. We’ll preserve our warfighting capability to defend the nation. And we will uphold the trust and confidence of the American people as we go forward. Our nation demands no less.
We’ll also integrate women in a way that enhances opportunity for everyone. This means setting clear standards of performance for all occupations based on what it actually takes to do the job. It also means ensuring that these standards are general [gender] neutral in occupations that will open to women.
As we introduce to women to previously closed occupations, we must make sure that there are a sufficient number of females entering the career field and already assigned to the related commands and leadership positions in order to sustain success over time. Our servicewomen and our servicemen deserve no less. These principles will guide the work ahead.
The services and Special Operations Command will begin expanding the number of units and the number of women assigned to those units this year. They will continue to assess, develop and validate gender neutral standards so that we can start assigning personnel to previously closed occupations. And they will take the time needed to do the work without compromising the principles I just mentioned.
In fact, adherence to the principles may lead to an assessment that some specialties and ratings should remain exceptions. In such cases, however, the services will bear the responsibility for providing the thorough analysis needed to better understand and better articulate what’s best for the joint force and the women who serve in it.
At the same time, women will continue to serve with distinction throughout our armed forces, in and out of combat, on land and at sea and in the air. We all wear the same uniform, and we all fire the same weapons. And most importantly, we all take the same oath.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
Today, by moving to open more military positions—including ground combat units—to women, our armed forces have taken another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens. This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, including more than 150 women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan—patriots whose sacrifices show that valor knows no gender.
Earlier today I called Secretary of Defense Panetta to express my strong support for this decision, which will strengthen our military, enhance our readiness, and be another step toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals of fairness and equality. I congratulate our military, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the rigor that they have brought to this process. As Commander in Chief, I am absolutely confident that—as with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’—the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world. Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.