Plans to phase women into combat roles are progressing gradually, military representatives told a House panel Tuesday, but Democrats and Republicans remain cautious about the transition.
Officers from the Navy, Air Forces, Army and Marines presented plans to integrate women into front line positions by 2016 to the Armed Services Military Personnel subcommittee. Representatives indicated confidence that the new policy, stemming from a January decision to lift a ban on women serving in combat roles, would not threaten the country’s military readiness.
“Women have been attached to our combat unit for several years,” said Major General Bennet Sacolick, the director of force management and development for the U.S. Special Operations Command. “And they have performed magnificently.”
But committee members presented a variety of issues that the Armed Services must overcome, chief among them winning over public support.
A critical task for the Army and Marines especially is reassessing the physical and mental standards required of a front line soldier. While military officials insisted that their efforts are science-based and long overdue, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said a vocal minority will equate any changes in the baseline to lowering standards for females.
“I don’t envy you,” said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. “There is not universal acceptance of this concept, though more so today than there was five, 10, 15 years ago.”
Another Republican, Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana, wondered if sexual assaults would increase as more women are moved into combat roles and questioned whether the military had adequately addressed the issue.
“The [sexual assault] debate sitting here is raging,” Walorski said.
But Juliet Beyler, the director of officer and enlisted personnel management for the Department of Defense countered that “the more we treat servicewomen equally, the more they will treat women with respect.”
Democrats were more worried that an institution dominated by males for centuries was too slow in taking on this issue and was ill-equipped to adequately address the concerns of female infantry.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., for example, said that “uniforms have not really been wonderful for women” and added that women put on the front lines should not be without other female soldiers.
“Make sure when you move these women into these combat [jobs], we’re not isolating them,” she said.
Lt. General Robert E. Milstead Jr. of the Marines said that was already being addressed.
“We don’t plan on dropping a single [female] marine here and a single marine here,” Milstead said. “We have a minimum of two or three per unit.”
To help women entering combat roles, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif, said the military should be mindful to put women in senior positions to serve as role models.
“If they’re not doing the No. 1 job of the military, which is combat, then they probably won’t be wearing stars on their uniforms,” Sanchez noted.