No Exceptions: Defense Chief Opens All Military Jobs to Women

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announces the change. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announces the change. Cliff Owen/AP

Every job in the U.S. military will be open for women to vie for and serve in — including in the elite special operations forces, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday.

“There will be no exceptions,” Carter said, ending months of speculation that some combat units, especially in the Marine Corps, would continue to bar women from their ranks.

The 21st-century military must draw on “the broadest possible pool of talent,” he said. “This includes women, because they make up over 50 percent of the American population. To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country's talents and skills.”

After three years of study by the military service secretaries, the service chiefs, and U.S. Special Operations Command, the only request for keeping some jobs closed came from the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph Dunford — now chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But Carter overruled the general, saying that because the military is a joint force — and because no other commanders sided with the Marines—integration must proceed jointly.

“I have decided to make a decision which applies to the entire force,” Carter said, adding that any risk to the Marines’ combat effectiveness would be mitigated by how the military implements integration of women.

Dunford did not attend the briefing, not did any other military chiefs. It was a different public relations approach to a major personnel announcement, which generally feature 4-star commanders.

Standing alone at a Pentagon podium, Carter said, “They'll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They'll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”

Dunford released a statement after Carter’s briefing, saying, “In the wake of the secretary’s decision, my responsibility is to ensure his decision is properly implemented.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has long advocated for opening all jobs to  also oversees the Marine Corps, said in a statement, "The decision to make the military gender-neutral will maximize the combat effectiveness of the Navy and Marine Corps....Our process and studies showed that as long as someone can meet operationally relevant, occupation-specific, gender-neutral individual standards, that person is qualified to serve. Gender does not define the Service of a United States Sailor or Marine — instead, it is their character, selflessness, and abilities."

In 30 days, the military’s jobs will be open for women. But Carter said it will take months and years for some units to feel the true effects of integration in combat deployments, as today’s incoming women rise from recruits and go through their speciality training and proceed on into their careers.  

Among the chief concerns of critics wary of opening women in combat has been whether U.S. military commanders would relax existing physical standards in certain qualifying schools or jobs. Retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, president of the Association of the U.S. Army and former Army chief of staff, said in a statement that he supported Carter’s decision. “The key will be how this is implemented, with a goal of making changes that improve the force, without quotas and keeping in mind that policy changes don’t eliminate any physical differences between men and women.”

Carter pointedly noted such fears, including “a perception that integration would be pursued at the cost of combat effectiveness” by opponents, and “that women servicemembers emphatically do not want integration to be based on any considerations other than the ability to perform.”

He insisted that standards would not change.

Some immediate responses from officials and across on social media were more colorful.

““I didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight—of course women can serve in combat. This decision is long overdue,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Wisc., in a statement. Duckworth was a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War and lost her legs in a 2004 crash after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

In January 2013, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered all military positions open to women by 2016. Today’s decision opens the remaining 213,600 positions across 52 different jobs, known as military occupational specialities, or MOSs.  

“The important factor in making my decision was to have access to every American who could add strength to the joint force,” Carter said. “Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to have barriers limiting our access to talent.”

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