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Defense Secretary Ash Carter today announced a historic decision. All ground combat jobs will be opened to women beginning early next year. In making his decision, Secretary Carter brushed aside a recommendation from a top military officer, Marine general Joseph Dunford. He wanted Marine infantry jobs closed to women. NPR's Tom Bowman has more.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Secretary Carter said it made no sense to exclude half the American population from serving in ground combat jobs, and he said what's important is whether a woman or a man can pass a physical requirement.
ASH CARTER: 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.
BOWMAN: The decision means women will now be able to serve not only in Army and Marine infantry jobs but sign up to become commandos as well.
CARTER: They'll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, 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.
BOWMAN: General Dunford did not appear at the Pentagon press conference. Reporters pressed Secretary Carter on the general's absence. He said the general will work with him on putting the plan into place but pointed out the final call was his alone.
CARTER: I'm announcing my decision. I was the one who took this decision. I'm announcing my decision.
BOWMAN: General Dunford put out a written statement after the briefing, saying, quote, "my responsibility is to ensure his decision is properly implemented." And he said his focus is to lead the integration of women and maintain the military's war-fighting capability.
Marines privately bristled at the announcement. They conducted a year-long study that found gender-integrated units were slower, less lethal and more prone to injury than all-male units. Marine officers also said accepting women would lead to greater risk, meaning more Marine combat casualties. Carter said he saw it differently. While the Marines' study found that a team with women would be less effective, the Defense Secretary indicated the study failed to focus on individual achievement. Advocates of women in combat say that the study did not pinpoint high-achieving women.
CARTER: Teams do matter, and we need to take that into account. And at the same time, the capabilities of the individual to contribute are extremely important.
BOWMAN: Carter said he was confident that through selection and training, the Marines will be able to make sure their fighting ability is maintained.
CARTER: This change will be implemented and, I am confident, can be implemented in a way that will enhance combat effectiveness, not detract from combat effectiveness.
BOWMAN: Zoe Bedell has no doubt the Marines will be effective with women in ground combat roles. She served in Afghanistan with a Female Engagement Team, going on patrol with infantry units and talking with women villagers. She said some male Marines were wary of having women in ground combat units.
ZOE BEDELL: Some of the concerns are, you know, whether can keep up, whether they'll be able to fight back as effectively, whether they'll respond under pressure. So it was always kind of there because those were the real-life questions. It wasn't a policy debate. It was, how are you going to perform when we're on patrol today?
BOWMAN: But she said many of the male Marines came around when they saw women doing the job, even engaged in firefights with the Taliban.
BEDELL: After they'd seen how my Marines acted in combat, which was just to say exactly like their Marines had acted in combat, there wasn't male or female; it was just, they're all Marines. And they said they're like sisters to us.
BOWMAN: Now the question is how many of these sisters will be willing to serve in ground combat. One of them likely will be Lance Corporal Brittany Dunklee, who took part in the Marine Corps study. NPR caught up with her in the Mojave Desert last spring.
LANCE CORPORAL BRITTANY DUNKLEE: I know a lot of males that can't do what I can do. But as long as you can do it, there's no reason why you shouldn't be in combat.
BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.