Pentagon: Women can serve in all military combat roles.

Women Can Now Serve in All Military Combat Roles

Women Can Now Serve in All Military Combat Roles

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Dec. 3 2015 2:07 PM

Women Can Now Serve in All Military Combat Roles

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Capt. Kristen Griest (left) and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, the first women ever to successfully complete the U.S. Army's Ranger School.

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Women will be allowed to serve in all combat jobs in America’s armed forces starting next year, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Thursday morning. Opening these positions up to women has been a long time coming: The military has spent three years reviewing its policies on women in combat, and in August, the first two female soldiers completed the Army’s elite Ranger School.

"Our force of the future must continue to benefit from the best people America has to offer," Carter said at a news conference Thursday. "In the 21st century, that requires drawing strength from the broadest possible pool of talent. … We can't succeed to defend the nation by eliminating half of the U.S. population from combat roles.” Women will be able to start serving in January, according to NPR.

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“There will be no exceptions,” Carter added.

Opportunities for women to serve in the armed forces have been increasing since the end of World War II. In 2002, with the U.S. beginning its long fight in Afghanistan, the Pentagon opened up more than 1,000 direct ground combat positions to women in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Until now, though, nearly 220,000 jobs—including infantry, armor, reconnaissance, and special operations units—were only open to men.

There will likely be some resistance to the new policy. From the New York Times report:

Mr. Carter said that, after a three-year review, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command agreed that all combat positions should be open to qualified women.
Only the Marine Corps, he said, requested some exemptions.
But Mr. Carter said he overruled the Marines to open all combat positions to women because the military should operate under a common set of standards.
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Previously, the Marine Corps has asked that women be barred from ground combat jobs, based on research into the effectiveness of female Marines. “They found that gender-integrated units—so units with men and women—did not do as well as all-male units,” according to NPR’s Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. “The ones with women were slower, less lethal and less able to carry a wounded Marine to safety.”

The Marine Corps' conclusion set off backlash from male and female veterans, who spoke out against the report's findings. So did Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy. “A more diverse force is a stronger force. A more diverse mindset makes you a stronger force,” he told NPR in September.

Many Western countries around the world allow women to serve in front-line combat roles, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Sweden. Earlier this year, I spoke with Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Vizel, chief gender adviser of the Israel Defense Forces, who has advised military leaders around the world on how to deal with issues around women in combat, including sexual harassment, recruitment, and maternity leave.* She told me:

We have women in combat positions, women as warriors, women as pilots, women in the navy, women in artillery. Iron Dome, for example, is 30 percent women.
(But) getting more women into these places requires making real changes. For example, if we want women in combat positions, we need special vests for them. It cannot be the same vest for a man and a woman. We need special equipment for women. These kinds of things seem small, but it really affects the way they can serve in the army.
… Making good decisions depends on hearing all the voices, including women’s voices. This is one of the reasons that I want more women in high ranks in the army, so they have a real influence on what's going on.

Notably, the U.S. policy will be even more inclusive than Israel’s, considered one of the most gender-friendly armed forces in the world.

*Correction, Dec. 3, 2015: This post initially misspelled the name of Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Vizel.

Rachel E. Gross is the science web editor at Smithsonian.