WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced Thursday that the U.S. military will begin allowing women to serve in combat roles to strengthen its ability to win wars and grant greater opportunities for servicewomen.
“Every person in today’s military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die, for our nation’s defense,”said Panetta at a Pentagon ceremony in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.”We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance.”’
To many Darke County veterans, the change was a long time coming.
“I think it’s great that they’ve made the decision,” said former U.S. Army Sergeant and Greenville American Legion member Glenna Dispennetpe. “I think they should’ve allowed this a long time ago. I think it offers more opportunities for females in the military.”
Dispennetpe said she wanted to join the Greenville’s Armory Division after coming out of the service in 1972, but because of her gender was prohibited from joining the combat unit.
“I figure that it’s up to the woman to decide,” Dispennetpe said. “If she wants to be there, she should be there.”
Instead, she was forced to compromise and joined Dayton’s National Guard.
“If they’re willing to serve, I don’t see whats wrong with it,” said former U.S. Army Private First Class and Greenville Veterans of Foreign Wars member Tommy Reed. “I’ve seen women that I’d trust my life with more than I would with some men.”
Reed said that women could do virtually everything a man could do in the military, and that to grant them the right to serve on front-line positions was inevitable.
“I think this was a long time coming. I’ve said for a long time, to keep (women) out of combat was wrong if they wanted to go,” Reed said.
“To go into combat, you have to have someone willing to do that, and I personally don’t think that has to do with gender.”
The Associated Press reported that Marlene Roll, the New York veteran who started the nation’s first Veteran of Foreign Wars post, supports the Pentagon’s plans to lift the ban on women serving in combat.
Roll commented that if an American woman is serving overseas in the military, she’s would probably already be facing a combat region.
Now military service chiefs will be determining whether women should be excluded from any of those more arduous positions, such as Army’s Delta Force or the Navy SEAL’s.
The U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended the change recently, which will overturn a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
Under the 1994 policy initiated by the Pentagon, servicewomen were forbidden from being assigned to smaller ground combat units below the brigade level, which consists of roughly 3,500 troops.
According to an Associated Press report, women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel, and more than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars.
But the changes won’t be instantaneous, as many specific positions will be decided on a case by case basis by high ranking officials. And the services will have four years, until January 2016, to make a case that some positions will remain gender specific.
As news of Panetta’s expected order got out, many members of the U.S. government, and armed voices voiced their support.
“While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast-moving and deadly situations,” said Boykin, a retired Army lieutenant general. He noted that small units often are in sustained combat for extended periods of time under primal living conditions with no privacy.
Panetta’s move comes in his final weeks as Pentagon chief and just days after President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech in which he spoke passionately about equal rights for all. The new order expands the department’s action of nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army.
The necessities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached — but not formally assigned — to battalions. So while a woman couldn’t be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly the helicopter supporting the unit, or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured.
And these conflicts, where battlefield lines are blurred and insurgents can lurk around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat.
Still, as recent surveys and experiences have shown, it will not be an easy transition. When the Marine Corps sought women to go through its tough infantry course last year, two volunteered and both failed to complete the course. And there may not be a wide clamoring from women for the more intense, dangerous and difficult jobs, including some infantry and commando positions.
Two lawsuits were filed last year challenging the Pentagon’s ban on women serving in combat, adding pressure on officials to overturn the policy. And the military services have been studying the issue and surveying their forces to determine how it may affect performance and morale.
The Joint Chiefs have been meeting regularly on the matter and they unanimously agreed to send the recommendation to Panetta earlier this month.
A senior military official familiar with the discussions said the chiefs laid out three main principles to guide them as they move through the process. Those were to maintain America’s effective fighting force, preserve military readiness and develop a process that would give all service members the best chance to succeed.
The senior military official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.
Contributions fromThe Daily Advocate, AP National Security Writer Robert Burns and AP Broadcast reporter Sagar Meghani and Lolita Baldor was included in this article.