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Women In Combat: Obstacles Remain As Exclusion Policy Ends

Wednesday's deadline for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to submit plans for ending the policy that keeps women from serving in ground combat positions will open up more than 200,000 positions in the military to them. But the change won't end questions about the role of women in the armed forces.

The Pentagon announced the end of the combat exclusion in January. Now comes the hard part: developing gender-neutral standards so women can qualify for all jobs, including combat infantry.

In this video, Marine Sgt. Maj. Michael P. Barrett left no doubt how he expects his Marines to react when women show up in combat units:

But the Marines in particular face many questions about how they will integrate more women in the next three years — all of the forces still have until 2016 before they must fully open positions.

Anne Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Virginia, filed suit against the exclusion before the Pentagon decided to drop it.

"There is the prospect not only of the process being slow, but at the end of the process, there may well be some jobs that remain closed to women," Coughlin says.

The Pentagon has indicated that some specialties may not open up right away, or ever — but the presumption is that positions must be open unless there's a good reason to keep them closed. Coughlin says she's also concerned about statements indicating that the military may want to wait for a "critical mass" of qualified women, and may not want individuals to serve as the only woman in a unit.

"My question to that is: Why not? If she's fit, and she's capable, and she wants to make the ultimate sacrifice, we may well need her there," she says. "And I argue equality principles demand it as well."

The big challenge for the services is scrutinizing thousands of job descriptions. Gender can no longer be the decisive factor, but physical strength can be.

Former Marine Capt. Greg Jacob, who is with the Service Women's Action Network, says strength is key to many infantry jobs. The group backs the end of the combat exclusion.

"For example, the effective casualty radius of a hand grenade is 15 meters. I mean, that doesn't change," Jacob says. "So in order to be able to employ a hand grenade without blowing yourself up, you have to be able to throw it 15 meters."

If a requirement like that keeps women out, Jacob says, that's OK — as long as women have the opportunity to volunteer and a chance to train up.

The Pentagon promises that re-examining job requirements will not lead to weaker standards. But some say lower standards are inevitable.

"Women have done wonderful jobs in the military in many things. I just don't think they are necessary in the infantry," says Mac Owens, who teaches at the Naval War College.

He says having women in combat will also erode "unit cohesion."

"Cohesion, I think, is based on mutual trust," he says. "Sexual tensions and things like that which are possible can undermine that cohesion."

Those who challenged the combat exclusion point out that women have served in harm's way in Afghanistan and other wars for many years; the end of the combat exclusion means that in the future they will finally get credit they deserve. But clearly, it will take a special kind of courage to be the first women in any combat unit.

Former Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell served alongside a combat unit in Afghanistan but never received the same recognition as her male counterparts. She says she faced skepticism at first.

"Our experience was that once they saw that we could perform, they treated us just like other Marines," she says.

Serving in combat together could help men see women as equals, and it's hoped that a shift in attitude could help address another big problem facing the Pentagon: sexual assault in the military.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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