'Days of Rambo Are Over': Military Details Plans for Integrating Women Into Combat Units

PHOTO: In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan.
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Despite a declaration that "the days of Rambo are over," Special Operations Command has concerns about how women will fit into its elite units as the military makes the transition to having women in combat by January 2016.

Though U.S. Special Operations Command says it will undertake long-term studies of the ramifications of such a move on its forces, Army and Navy plans could have women training for Army Ranger School by mid-2015 and as Navy SEALs by 2016.

The military services, which all presented their long-term plans Tuesday for how they will integrate women into front-line combat units, are all currently developing gender-neutral standards for those units, but U.S. Special Operations Command is not going to change its difficult entry standards, which are both physical and mental.

"The days of Rambo are over," said Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, of the U.S. Special Operations Command Force Management Directorate. "I mean, we're looking for young men that can speak and learn a foreign language and understand culture, that can work with indigenous populations and culturally atune manners.

"The defining characteristic of our operators are intellect," he added. "And when people fail in the special forces qualification course, predominantly they fail because they're not doing their homework."

Sacolick admitted that SOCOM has concerns about letting women into its elite ranks because their units are often small teams working in remote areas. He said the biggest challenge has less to do with how they do on physical tests but in dealing with social and cultural changes.

He said the command is not predisposed to any course of action, which is why it will undertake three studies over the next year to look at the socio-cultural impact of a change before making a recommendation to the Secretary of Defense by July 2015.

One of the studies will focus on "the social implications of integrating women at the team level," another will look at "the behavior and cultural aspects of integrating women into its formations that operate in that remote special operations environment," he said.

The third study will be a survey, similar to the one conducted by the Pentagon ahead of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," that will gauge the opinions of Special Operations forces.

"Our formations are filled with quiet professionals," Sacolick said. "We need to know how they feel about integration at the team level. I think that's going be really important."

The military services have similar long timelines that will meet the Pentagon's goal of integrating women in all combat units by January 2016. Each is charting its own path for developing gender-neutral standards for jobs that men and women will be able to do in combat units.

For example, the Marines have settled on five "proxy tasks," like loading an artillery shell into a tank gun, that are representative of hundreds of micro-tasks. This summer they will study how 800 male and female Marines work their way through the drills to come up with a screening test that will eventually be used on incoming recruits who want to serve in infantry units.

Some gender-neutral standards have already been developed for certain frontline jobs and will open up to women fairly quickly. For example, as early as next month, female sailors will be allowed to train to join the Navy's Riverine force that provides security operations in river and coastal areas.

Other combat jobs will still require longer study and review, not only for developing the new standards but also for more mundane things like new lodging and privacy needs that would be necessitated by allowing women into the units.

The service representatives said they are consulting with SOCOM as to how to proceed with allowing women into their special ops units.

But the plans presented Tuesday show the Army could begin to allow women to enter the Army's elite Ranger School after July, 2015 and the Navy could allow women into SEALS training in early 2016.

While the Army has tentatively set plans to allow women to enter Army Ranger School to earn the "Ranger Tab," it does not mean that female graduates will automatically get to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Like their male peers, they will have to successfully meet the unit's own selective standards. The same might hold true for sailors who train to become SEAL's.

Last January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the 1994 Combat Exclusion Rule that restricted women from serving in frontline infantry, armor and special operations units and set a January 2016 compliance deadline. The concept of a frontline became blurred in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as women serving in other units also became the targets of roadside bombs and attacks. To date, almost 150 military women have died in those wars.

The services have varying numbers of jobs that have remained closed to women as a result of the rule. While the Navy has 88 percent of its jobs open for women, the Air Force has had 99 percent of its positions open to women for years. Among the jobs closed to women in the Air Force are positions in combat control, tactical air command and control, pararescue and special-operations weather positions.

The stated goal of lifting of the ban was to open all combat jobs to women, but the services were given the option of requesting an exception that would have to be approved by the defense secretary. Though they are tentative in nature and many details still have to be reviewed, the timelines reflect the goal of including women in all combat units.

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