Defense Secretary Ash Carter has ended gender-specific limitations on military jobs, effectively opening all combat roles to women and providing them greater opportunities for career advancement.
“We are a joint force, and I have decided to make a decision which applies to the entire force,” Carter announced Thursday.
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The move was immediately hailed by groups advocating for several organizations representing female service members, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“We commend the secretary and are celebrating his decision,” said Judy Patterson, president of Service Women’s Action Network, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. “This is a huge hurdle.”
Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, said the decision strengthens the military. “Today’s change is good for our military and good for our country,” he said in a statement.
Women from Long Island have participated in combat areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving in various capacities, including as convoy truck drivers, military police and helicopter pilots.
Data from two years ago show that 590 female members of the New York National Guard had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Twenty-six had been awarded the Combat Action Badge, meaning they have encountered enemy fire or been stationed in combat zones.
Carter said that while men and women typically have different physical abilities, the services will assign personnel based on ability rather than gender. He acknowledged that could result in fewer women in some jobs, and said combat effectiveness would remain paramount.
The decision comes after several years of study, and will wipe away generations of limits on how and where women can fight for their country.
Only the Marine Corps sought any exceptions in removing the long-held ban on allowing women to serve in dangerous combat jobs. The Army, Navy and Air Force have moved steadily toward allowing women to serve in all posts, and only the most risky jobs remain closed.
The decision to admit women to combat positions comes as the Department of Defense is downsizing the number of troops in uniform. But Carter said that there are specialties that require women in forward combat positions, such as interrogative contacts with women encountered during battlefield sweeps.
“Half the American population is female,” Carter said, “So I’d be crazy not to be, so to speak, fishing in that pond for qualified service members.”
Maria Millan of Freeport said the decision should “open more doors” for her daughter, Kiara Madina, who is serving as a medic in an Army unit based at Fort Lewis in Washington state.
“As a mother, I’m worried,” she said. “But I support her. It’s what she really wants to do.”