Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday directed his top aides to open all combat assignments to women, a historic move that will enable female service members to seek 220,000 previously closed military posts.
Those posts include Special Operations forces, which could one day put women on the front lines in Syria and Iraq, battling Islamic State militants under President Barack Obama’s recent deployments of the elite troops to the two war-torn countries.
Women have already proved themselves in tens of thousands of combat posts opened in recent years, many of them while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Carter said.
“Women (have) seen combat throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving, fighting and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” Carter said.
At least 161 women have been killed in action in the two wars, 2.5 percent of the 6,431 U.S. service members who’ve perished.
Carter said his action was spurred by the success in recent months of the first female graduates of the Army Rangers training course at Fort Benning, Ga.
Carter made a point of noting that the three women – Capt. Kristen Griest, 1st Lt. Shaye Haver and Maj. Lisa Jaster – will now be able to serve in the 75th Rangers Regiment, a legendary Special Operations force that conducts covert raids and other dangerous missions.
In making his decision, Carter overrode opposition from the Marine Corps, which had cited studies it said indicated that allowing women to be riflemen, tank officers, machine gunners and other combat specialists in its ranks would endanger troops, hurt morale and decrease overall readiness.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who’d opposed opening more posts to women, was absent from Carter’s briefing. Carter said he expected Dunford to carry out his directive.
“He understands what my decision is, and my decision is my decision, and we will implement it accordingly,” Carter said of Dunford.
Carter expressed confidence that the changes “can be implemented in a way that will enhance combat effectiveness, not detract from combat effectiveness.”
The move, which will begin April 1 after military leaders craft detailed implementation plans, opens 52 combat specialties across the four major services, including 22 in the Marine Corps and 19 in the Army, which provide all of the nation’s infantry and armored troops.
“There will be no exceptions,” Carter said. “This means that as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before. They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry troops into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force para-jumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
Rep. Martha McSally, who while piloting an A-10 attack jet in Iraq and Afghanistan became the first American woman to fly in combat, hailed Carter’s decision.
“Today’s historic announcement finally recognizes that our military is strongest when it prioritizes merit and capability, not gender – and it’s about damn time,” McSally said. “Women have been fighting and dying for our country since its earliest wars. They have shown that they can compete with the best, and succeed.”
Carter cited internal surveys showing that women in the armed forces overwhelmingly do not want standards lowered in order for them to advance.
“Women service members emphatically do not want integration to be based on any consideration other than the ability to perform and (on) combat effectiveness,” he said.
The move buoyed current and former female service members across the country.
“Men wash out of training and specialty schools, and women will, too,” said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Lourdes Alvardo-Ramos, now director of the Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs. “But it’s not going to be because you’re a woman. It’s going to be because you don’t have what it takes.”
In Sacramento, California, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Kila Legler, who works at a Navy-Marine Reserves maintenance base, said the ultimate measure of success would be whether women could obtain promotions in the military specialties previously closed to them.
“Anyone can pass training, but to sustain a career is going to be the real test,” Legler, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told McClatchy. “That’s going to take time to determine.”
Relying on an all-volunteer force while responding to the Islamic State and other mounting challenges around the globe, Carter said, requires him to be able to draw from the broadest possible pool of talent.
“This includes women, because they make up over 50 percent of the American population,” he said. “To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country’s talents and skills.”
Carter tread a careful line between saying that standards will not be lowered for women and noting studies that show physical and physiological differences between the sexes. He said those differences would be taken into account as the military chiefs drew up implementation plans.
An even playing field for obtaining all combat posts, he said, will not necessarily result in equal proportions of men and women filling those posts.
“Equal opportunity likely will not mean equal participation by men and women in all specialties,” Carter said. “There must be no quotas or perception thereof.”
At the same time, Carter directed his service chiefs in a memo to take into account Army and Marine Corps studies finding that women participating in ground-combat training sustained injuries at higher rates than men.
“The sustainability of our combat readiness and our obligation to the welfare of the force means these findings must be addressed in the implementation of the full integration of women in the armed forces,” he wrote in the memo.
Adam Ashton of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, contributed to this article.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose