Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Thursday that he is opening all jobs in combat units to women, a landmark decision that would for the first time allow female service members to join the country’s most elite military forces.
Women will now be eligible to join the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and other Special Operations Units. It also opens the Marine Corps infantry, a battle-hardened force that many service officials had openly advocated keeping closed to female service members.
“There will be no exceptions,” Carter said. “This means that, as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before.”
Carter’s announcement caps three years of experimentation at the Pentagon and breakthroughs for women in the armed services. Earlier this year, two female soldiers became the first women to ever graduate from the Army’s grueling Ranger School. But the Pentagon’s project also set off a bitter debate about how women should be integrated.
Carter said that top leaders in the Army, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command all recommended that all jobs be opened to women. The Marine Corps recommended that certain jobs such as machine gunner be kept closed, but the secretary said that the military is a joint force, and his decision will apply to everyone. The top Marine officer who made that recommendation, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September, and did not appear alongside Carter on Thursday.
The services will have 30 days to provide plans to Carter on how they will implement the policy change, he said. By law, the military also must notify Congress formally and wait that long before making any changes.
The roots of the secretary’s decision date back to January 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced he was rescinding a longtime ban on women serving directly in ground combat units. Panetta gave the services until this fall to research the issue.
About 220,000 jobs, or about 10 percent, of the military remained closed to women before Thursday’s announcement, Carter said. Another 110,000 jobs in careers like artillery officer were opened in a series of decisions since 2013.