Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on Thursday ordered every branch of the military to open all combat jobs to women.
Based on studies conducted over the past three years by both civilian and military leaders, Carter decided to allow the integration of women into all positions in the military for which they are qualified.
Of all the branches of the military, only the Marine Corps sought an exception to removing the long-held ban on women in combat jobs, arguing that an integration of those units would affect "military readiness."
Carter denied that integration would negatively affect readiness, instead saying that limiting the number of qualified military personnel based on gender is in fact what impedes readiness.
"Everyone in uniform has to meet [military] standards, and everyone who meets those standards should have the full and equal opportunity to serve their country," Carter said at a White House press conference announcing the change. "Now more than ever we cannot afford to have barriers limiting our access to our nation's talent."
Carter outlined seven guidelines for the implementation of the integration, most of which emphasized placing the talent and "effectiveness" of the individual above all else, implementation of integration and cooperation within small teams, and the strict avoidance of developing quotas for the number of women on a team.
The order will become effective in 30 days, Carter said.
Though the Navy, Air Force, and Army have come out in support of integration, the Marine Corps has expressed public opposition. In August, the Marine Corps published a controversial report stating that women caused combat units to be less accomplished. The legitimacy of the report was later called into question.
In September, celebrated former Lieutenant General Gregory S. Newbold, wrote an article saying there was no way "sexual dynamics" in “the most libido-laden age cohort in humans, in the basest of environs, will not degrade the nearly spiritual glue that enables the infantry to achieve the illogical and endure the unendurable.”
Marine Corps Sergeant Megan Cavanaugh, who was in combat long before women were officially allowed to be, told BuzzFeed News she sees the change as beneficial for women, but "frightening."
Cavanaugh was in Iraq in 2007 as the first group of "Lionesses" — women Marines attached to a unit of infantry men whose job was primarily to search Iraqi women when males were not allowed. Cavanaugh said cars she entered were blown up, and that a female friend of hers was killed in a suicide bombing, yet she received no recognition for her service in combat, because she was not officially allowed to be there.
Cavanaugh and other women were unable to receive the promotions that go along with receiving combat action ribbons. Gender integration will eliminate this problem, she said. "Finally, women who are already in combat will now be there on paper too," she said.
Cavanaugh said she was also worried about possible retribution from male Marines who didn't want women in their unit. "The higher-ups have made it clear they don't want women there, which will feed down to the junior Marines, who might take it out on the women in their unit," Cavanaugh explained, saying she saw and experienced this affect herself.
The "bullying, aggression, and isolation" women marines could be subject to is not only horrible to experience when in the seclusion of marine units, but in combat could actually be physically dangerous. "Combat units are just that – a unit," she continued, they don't work if someone is being pushed out.
"But as a symbol," Cavanaugh added, "it's just what we've been waiting for!"
Later on Thursday, President Obama released a statement commending Carter for his decision, and assuring the American people that this change would make the military "even stronger."
The world is that we draw on the talents and skills of our people. When we desegregated our military, it became stronger. In recent years, we ended "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and allowed gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly -- and it's made our military stronger. Over recent decades, we've opened about 90 percent of military positions to women who time and again have proven that they, too, are qualified, ready and up to the task. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our courageous women in uniform have served with honor, on the front lines -- and some have given their very lives.
Today, the Defense Department is taking another historic step forward by opening up the remaining 10 percent of military positions, including combat roles, to women. As Commander in Chief, I know that this change, like others before it, will again make our military even stronger. Our armed forces will draw on an even wider pool of talent. Women who can meet the high standards required will have new opportunities to serve. I know that, under the leadership of Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford, our men and women in uniform will implement this transition -- as they have others -- in a responsible manner that maintains military readiness and the unparalleled professionalism and strength of our armed forces. Together, we're going to make sure our military remains the finest fighting force in the history of the world, worthy of all our patriots who serve -- men and women.