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Panetta, Dempsey Officially Lift Ban On Women In Combat

January 25, 2013 9:35 a.m.

Guests

Tara Jones, National Women's Military Veterans Association

Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times

Related Story: Panetta, Dempsey Officially Lift Ban On Women In Combat

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The Pentagon made it official today. It's lifted the ban on front line combat roles for women. The new policy could potentially open up more than 200,000 military jobs to women. Officials say the change reflects the reality of front line service experienced by women in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are lingering concerns that allowing women in infantry combat positions may hurt both women and the U.S. military. My guests, Tara Jones is founder of the national women's military veterans association here in San Diego.

JONES: Thank you, Maureen, for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Tony Perry is on the line, San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times, and he's been an imbedded journalist with members for Camp Pendleton.

As a woman army veteran, do you think now is the right time to announce this change, Tara? Navy, I'm sorry.

JONES: It is a monumental moment for women. I've heard numerous responses from women around the country, women veterans from around the country, and also some active duty. It's been a long time coming. And we're just so happy and honored that President Obama and the current administration has chosen to implement this so quickly after the inauguration where he talked about women and equality, and to be able to see this within 48 to 72 hours is just as historical as his presidency.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you were saying that your voice is raspy because you've been talking so much about this. Who's been contacting you?

JONES: The Washington post, LA Times, USA today, just a lot of different women groups. We've all kind of just shared in this historical moment as women of the military. We all served at some point, women veterans that wished they had that opportunity to be able to be a part of this historical moment. It's very moving.

CAVANAUGH: Tony, how big a change do you think this will be for the Marines?

PERRY: It could be a sea change. The Marine Corps is dedicated to ground combat, and you should the 1994 role, women were not allowed in ground combat billets, although the reality of Afghanistan and Iraq has been that women are there as dog handlers, as truck drivers, as intel specialist, as women of outreach to the women of Afghanistan and Iraq. So they've always been there. But to go that further step and make them part of infantry units, the 2003-11 military occupational specialty, that's going to be a big step. And it's one that the Marine Corps is going to work slowly on. We're going to see how well it works in terms of physical standards, in terms of training, in terms of how many people can actually -- how many women can actually perform as well as the men. It's going to be interesting. It's going to be a definite sea change, and it's going to take a while to shake out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. What initial reaction have you possibly heard from Camp Pendleton, Tony?

PERRY: Not a heck of a lot, to be candid. The Marine Corps and the Navy have battened down the hatches on this one, not allowing much discussion with the rank and file. But my hunch is that the Marine Corps as a culture is pretty straight-laced. And when the commandant or the general or the sergeant major gives an order, the proper response is yes, sir, and you move out. And when the order is we're going to integrate women into these positions, that's the response you will get.

CAVANAUGH: Joining us on the phone right now is the policy director for the service women's action network. Welcome to the program.

RIH2: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And your last name Swan?

RIH2: No, it's Jacob.

CAVANAUGH: That's what I thought!
[ LAUGHTER ]

CAVANAUGH: Welcome to the program. Your group joined a lawsuit brought by four women in the military against the Department of Defense several months after the announcement of the policy change, which happened today. What argument did those service women make against being barred from combat?

RIH2: Well, it was basically -- essentially it was a discrimination argument. What you had was women that were qualified to serve in these different roles, that wanted to serve in these different roles, and the only reason that they were being prevented from having the opportunity to try and serve in these roles to, go through the rang and get the occupational specialty designation and be assigned to these units was this policy.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think the lawsuit might have been a factor in pushing the Pentagon to allow women in combat?

RIH2: I think it was. The network has been advocating for this for years, and we're actually in the past four years pretty new to the party. There have been veterans, service organization, and women veterans' organizations that have been arguing this for decades now. But our strategy was basically to engage DOD, the legislators, we had bills introduced from congresswoman marNA Sanchez, and we hit the Pentagon on just about every angle on this. I think it was a protracted effort that involved a lot of different people and organizations, and a lot of people on the hill and off the hill. And the something thing about this, this change was recommended by the joint chiefs, not by the civilian leadership of the Pentagon. So this is the roots on the ground, the generals in the field that are asking the service secretary to change this policy, which Panetta is doing. So it's not a situation where you have civilian, social initials trying to jam something down the service's throat. The military has done their research, and the generals that are in charge of these services believe this is how the military should look going forward.

CAVANAUGH: Now, had this lawsuit gone on far enough so that there was actually -- was the Department of Defense going to defend against your claims?

RIH2: There was every intention for them to. We had gone to court, and there hadn't been that much movement on the case. But all the preliminary something had been done.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you very much. You are policy director for the service women's action, in. Thanks for joining us today.

RIH2: Thanks for the opportunity. I appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to get back to my guests, Tara and Tony. I want to talk about this idea that has surfaced in discussion about this change in policy that women have been serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tony, you mentioned that, that that's what these wars have been there is the designation of front line has been very loose when it comes to front line drivers and medics and mechanics. Did you see that over there?

PERRY: Oh, absolutely. Loose to say the least. Now, that doesn't mean the next war will look like Afghanistan or Iraq. But in those two conflicts, the whole place is nothing but a front line, and women have been there. Not in infantry units, but in units that are hand in glove with these units. Dog handler, intel, helicopter pilot, fast-mover pilot, jet pilots, they have been there. And let's not forget that some 800 women have been wounded, 130 women have been killed in combat. The women have been there. Now, integrating them into infantry platoons with all due respect to Mr. Jacob hasn't yet been studied and vetted. It will be. But at the moment they're not really sure what it means to the physical standards. You know what this reminds me of? And this is an imprecise anal, but I'll make it. When the San Diego fire department started to include women, late '70s, early '80s, it took a while. There were some male jackasses who did some silly things. But that aside, there were important questions about physical standards in terms of firefighters, how strong do you have to be, how much weight on your back should you be able to carry up a ladder, how about dragging one of those big hoses, how about running? These things are going to have to be studied. And as we know in San Diego, while San Diego was slow off the mark, it rather quickly became the leader in hiring and promoting women in the firefighter ranks. And I don't think anyone would claim that somehow firefighting in San Diego has been degraded by of the presence of women. We'll see whether that also occurs when it comes to combat units in the Marine Corps and in the army.

CAVANAUGH: Tara Jones, one of the fallouts from women not being able to serve in combat positions is that when they are injured or when they do serve on what is actually the front line in Iraq or Afghanistan, they're don't get combat decorations, and they don't get noted that they have served in combat. ; isn't that right?

JONES: That's right. And that's why it's so important for women to be allowed the opportunity to serve, even to the front line. And women within the U.S. Navy, we have women that are on submarines, so when you start talking about combat, and women that are in the airforce that are jet fighters and pilots. So when you start talking about combat, the joint chiefs, that represents all your branches of service. And war is war. And collectively, if you really want to see a change in the way that women are treated within our society, it starts with our military branches of service. They should be allowed every opportunity to be whatever they want to be, and that should be a dream for any woman or any young lady that chooses to want to join the military branches of service.

CAVANAUGH: What other doors are closed to military women because they don't have combat experience as they try to move up the chain of command?

JONES: Well, when you don't have the experience such as with our joint chiefs of staff, it automatically prevents some officers from being able to fill that join chief of staff position. So when you look at some of the challenges like -- the disconnect with women not feeling as though they're suited or able to aspire to be in these various positions, it's because of them not being able to be stationed in different locations throughout the world, and be able to be successful at it. And so when you look at that, it creates an environment where you still have that disconnect, and if you really want to see women be treated equally and to be able to pursue their dreams and aspire to be whatever they want to be within our military branches of service leading up potentially the president of the United States. A military woman could hold that position with her experience.

CAVANAUGH: As commander in chief.

JONES: As commander in chief.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, Tony, this is bound to be pushback on this, one would imagine. A lot of people in the military are going to feel this is just another politically correct mandate enforced on the military. I mean, we can set our watches on that, can't we?
[ LAUGHTER ]

PERRY: Oh, absolutely. The United States military is a reflection of the society, and a reflection of the society's political values and political processes. Always has been, always will be. There'll be pushback. I would disappointed if there wasn't, to a certain degree. One of the redeeming features of the United States military, certainly the Marine Corps, is that it doesn't buck and jump to every change in American society like watching the Kardashians on TV or something. It has very strong value system, and it adheres to them. Which means the flip side of that is they don't change very quickly. They do change, bub not quickly.

CAVANAUGH: Just let me get this in. I think that there have been some people saying that they saw this coming not just because of the way the wars were being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and the roles women were playing but the fact that just a couple of months ago, the Marines tried to equalize standards for physical fitness between men and women. They put in new standards that basically women had to do pullups like men and things of that nature. So those standards were gradually being equalized.

PERRY: Indeed. And the experience so far has not shown that large numbers of women that are in the Marine Corps are thundering over to get into infantry and artillery and armor unit, special operations units. So we haven't seen a large number of women try to transfer over or a large number of women try to enlist hoping they can get into infantry or armor or artillery. I think where the stuff is really going to hit the fan is in the special operations. Be they green berets in the army or delta force or the Marine special operation, or of course the Navy seals. All of which are the word elite is attached to them, male only is also attached to them, physical standards way above just the common sailor grunt dog, if you will. That's going to be a difficult one to see how the various military services respond, and whether they seek an exemption.

CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.

PERRY: In Leon Panetta's rule, he allows for the various services to request an exemption. But you better be able to prove why you need it and that it's for the best of combat effectiveness.

CAVANAUGH: One last question with Tara Jones, I know you've lectured about the problem 've sexual assault, rape of women in the military. Do you think allowing women in combat roles might change this?

JONES: Definitely because you'll have more women in leadership positions where they're able to give a different assessment to what's going on in the military culture. And this ban is just so monumental because it just opens the doors in reverse for anything that Tony just stated, that it allows them the opportunity that if they want to apply for special forces, for delta forces, for Navy seals whatever that special elite group may be that they need to consider women.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, we've got to leave it there.