The Pentagon faces major challenges ahead in 2016 as it works to make good on a pledge to open all U.S. military combat jobs to women.
The toughest part of the integration, which President Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have made a priority in their final year in office, will be overcoming deep-seated opposition among many male special forces commandos.
“They feel what makes them special is being all male, and somehow integrating women is going to make them less special and less adept,” said Megan MacKenzie, author of “Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight.”
“A lot of that is based on emotion and a lack of experience working with women.”
Carter made history this month when he announced that all combat jobs would be open to women, with no exceptions. The decision came despite a recommendation from the Marine Corp to keep some jobs closed.
Carter acknowledged the difficulty of implementing his order when he made his announcement.
“How we implement this is key,” he said. “Simply declaring all career fields open is not successful integration. We must not only continue to implement change thoughtfully but also track and monitor our progress to ensure we're doing it right.”
The response to Carter’s announcement on Capitol Hill was mostly positive. Still, some who praised the decision added that implementation would be crucial and focused on the need to not lower standards to get women into the newly available roles.
After Carter’s announcement, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Sen. John McCainJohn McCainMcCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration Overnight Defense: General warns State Department cuts would hurt military | Bergdahl lawyers appeal Trump motion | Senators demand action after nude photo scandal Senate lawmakers eye hearing next week for Air Force secretary: report MORE (R-Ariz.) — the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, respectively — promised to use Congress’s 30-day review period to thoroughly examine the studies Carter used to inform his decision.
As part of that review, Thornberry and Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), chairman of the subcommittee on military personnel, sent a letter to Carter with 17 questions about his decision.
Among the questions is how the Pentagon plans to implement Carter’s decision, how the services plan to maintain gender-neutral standards and whether the decision has any legal implications on women registering for the draft.
“Although the department has provided some documentation and briefed the committee, several questions remain,” they wrote in the letter, which was also signed by 16 other committee Republicans. “The issue of women serving in all previously closed positions is complex and multi-faceted, and the department’s decision must be carefully reviewed to evaluate its impact on military readiness.”
Thornberry and Heck asked for a response by Jan. 3.
An aide for McCain said Tuesday the Senate committee’s review is ongoing and that a hearing is planned for after the Senate returns from the holiday recess.
There are already indications that integration is going to be tough. A survey of special operation forces released after Carter’s announcement found that opposition to opening special ops to women was “deep-seated and intensely felt.”
In the survey, 85.6 percent of the 7,618 respondents said they were either strongly or somewhat opposed to opening their specialty to women. And 70.9 percent said they were strongly or somewhat opposed to opening their unit to women.
The survey, done by the RAND Corporation and commissioned by Special Operations Command, also included a series of 49 focus groups. RAND kept the participants anonymous in its report.
The focus group responses show concern about lower standards, unit morale, political motives and accusations of sexual assault, among other issues. The 292-page study includes statements of vehement opposition from across the military’s branches.
“It’s a slap in the face telling us that chicks can do our job,” one Army Ranger said.
“It’s not the physical aspect that bothers me. My issues are morale and retention. This wouldn’t be special to anyone anymore.”
One special operations Marine chocked the entire initiative up to Washington politics.
“This is a political thing. This is people in Congress. Because there is no grassroots movement of women saying we want to,” he argued in the survey. “It’s some congressmen trying to make equal rights for women. Whether anyone in this room wants to say it or not, that’s what I think we all think.”
But not all the responses were negative.
“I think we are selling ourselves short by not opening it up to the best individuals,” a special operations Marine said. “There are some positives. In some countries, two gorilla, tattooed men would look suspicious. But me and [a woman] walking down the street holding hands would not. It opens up new possibilities.”
MacKenzie, the author of a book on the role of women in the military, predicted that some of the hang-ups about adding women into special forces would fade away once women actually join. She cited the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in which feared consequences didn’t become reality, as evidence.
“Just working with women will help dispel some of those myths,” she said. “They’ll realize women can pull their weight; they’ll realize unit cohesion doesn’t fall apart and the world doesn’t end when they have to have a woman in it.”
Leadership will also need to set an example for those they command, MacKenzie added. In that regard, she said, Carter has already done a good job by making his announcement unequivocal.
“Just making it clear this is no longer an option,” MacKenzie said of how leaders should act. “Making it clear this is no longer something the military is seeking feedback on, that this is a decision that’s been made.”