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‘Everyone Is Entitled to a Chance’: Panetta Lifts Ban on Women in Combat

January 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he will lift a 19-year ban on servicewomen serving in combat. Jeffrey Brown reports that this move may open up more than 200,000 jobs to women. Gwen Ifill looks at the implications of Panetta's decision with Col. Ellen Haring of the U.S. Army and former Marine Corps officer Wade Zirkle.

JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. military has a new order of the day: working up plans for putting women on the front lines. The process was set in motion today at the Pentagon.

LEON PANETTA, Defense Secretary: Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance.

JEFFREY BROWN: With that, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, joined by the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, announced he’s ending a 1994 ban on women in combat roles.

LEON PANETTA: As secretary, when I have gone to Bethesda to visit wounded warriors and when I have gone to Arlington to bury our dead, there is no distinction that’s made between the sacrifices of men and women in uniform. They serve, they’re wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nearly 300,000 women have deployed over the past 11 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the front lines aren’t so clearly drawn. And 152 have died. Today’s decision opens up some 230,000 battlefront positions to women, many in Army and Marine infantry units.

Commanders will have to decide whether women will be eligible for elite forces, such as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force.

LEON PANETTA: And let me be clear. We’re not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job. If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.

JEFFREY BROWN: The move drew wide praise from women’s groups and others. But one former member of Delta Force, now with the conservative Family Research Council, called the move — quote — “another social experiment.”

Jerry Boykin said in a statement that commanders “will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast-moving and deadly situations. Is it worth placing this burden on small unit leaders? I think not.”

Panetta’s announcement followed a House hearing yesterday on sexual misconduct in the military. A recent study found that in 2012 alone, there were some 800 reported incidents. Today, General Dempsey said ending the ban on women in combat will make a difference.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman: When you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that is designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that in some cases led to that environment. I have to believe the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.

JEFFREY BROWN: The decision comes nearly two-and-a-half years after the repeal of another ban, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which barred gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military.

GWEN IFILL: And we return to the decision to lift the ban on women in the military. For more on how this came together, and what comes next, we turn to Colonel Ellen Haring, who was in the Army nearly 30 years when she filed suit against the Defense Department after being denied the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. And Wade Zirkle, he served two tours in Iraq as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, and he earned a Purple Heart.

I guess I will ask both of you, starting with you, Colonel Haring, what is good and what is bad about this change?

COL. ELLEN HARING, U.S. Army: Well, I think pretty everything is good about the change. It opens a vast number of opportunities to women across the military. But I really think this is a win for not only women, but also our military and really the country broadly.


I would ask Wade Zirkle the same question.

WADE ZIRKLE, Former Marine Corps officer: Sure, Gwen.

I think this is generally good. I think your viewers need to understand that this is merely the lifting of a ban, and now the service chiefs need to decide exactly how it’s going to be implemented. So there still will be some occupational specialties that will be restricted from women.

So I think generally it’s good. It’s good for women, it’s good for the military, it’s good for our country, although there are a lot of questions as to how it will be implemented.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s walk through these, starting with you Colonel Haring.

Today, at the briefing at Pentagon, when Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey were asked about this, reporters said to them that they wanted — noted that both of them had mentioned that unnecessary gender barriers would be removed. And the reporter asked, what are the necessary gender barriers? So let me ask you that.

ELLEN HARING: I don’t see any necessary gender barriers. And I’m not sure what that was in reference to.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there are questions that have been raised about women’s ability to perform in combat situations. And you say there are no barriers to that?

ELLEN HARING: Well, if we establish one standard for all, there is no barrier. It’s whoever can meet that standard. And I’m assuming you’re talking about physical standards.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, that’s the question that’s been raised.

ELLEN HARING: Yes, right. And I have heard the secretary say that — go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Well, finish, Colonel Haring.

And then I’m come to you, Mr. Zirkle.


What I heard the secretary say was, we’re going to establish one physical standard, men or women. Regardless, whoever meets that physical standard can be in those occupational specialties.


Wade Zirkle?


First, I think it’s important to look at what the combat arms are. Combat arms generally are in three categories. You have artillery, you have armor and you have infantry. I think with artillery and armor, I think women can very ably serve physically. In the infantry, especially light infantry, I think there are real questions about the physical strength and the way women and men are built, the physical strength of whether women can carry out those roles.

One very common drill we did in the infantry was called the fireman’s carry, which means you walk up to a Marine that’s lying on the ground and he’s pretending to play dead and completely limp, and you need to lift, hoist that Marine up on your shoulders and then lift him up and carry him for over 100 yards.

And I’m 225 pounds, and there are Marines a lot bigger than I am. And I think that’s a — the way women are built, that’s a very — one of several tests that are very, very difficult to do and are very relevant tests to what happen in combat.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Ellen Haring, do you want to respond to that?

ELLEN HARING: Well, I’m surprised — I would be surprised to see that every infantryman could carry a 220-pound man.

But it goes back to the one standard. If a man or a woman can meet that standard, if the standard is a 220-pound man, then every man, just like every woman, should meet that standard. I’m not sure that that’s an existing standard. I keep hearing that as, this is the measure of our fitness, but I suspect that there are many men in the infantry that could not hoist a 220-pound man and carry him a hundred yards. So I don’t know that that’s been a standard that was established.

WADE ZIRKLE: Well, ma’am, I invite you to come to infantry training. Ma’am, I would invite you to come to some infantry training and see it. I mean, it happens.

I would also say, just to remove that test and talk about real operational constraints, an infantryman’s gear head to toe is about 90 pounds. And that’s not including his pack, which is about 50 additional pounds. And that’s not even including if he’s part of a crew-served weapons unit or a mortar unit, which is even more weight. We’re talking over 150 pounds that you might have to hump for dozens of miles over mountains over the course of days.

GWEN IFILL: Let me …

WADE ZIRKLE: These are brutal physical constraints that are put on anybody, but women and men are just built differently.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me step back for a moment because it is clear that based on today’s announcement, that some version of this is going to happen.

And I want to ask Ellen Haring about this.

Does the way we practice war, has it changed to who the warriors can be? That is, this idea of front lines in combat, do they still exist in the same way that they were when this was first considered to be a wise way to decide who does what job?

ELLEN HARING: Well, I think that’s one of the reasons that the combat exclusion policy is being lifted today.

In reality, these front and rear areas don’t exist. And so designating some areas as safe and other areas as unsafe is just not the reality of what we have seen in the past 10 years. And so women have found themselves living, fighting, and dying with their male counterparts. So I think we’re adjusting to meet the realities that we see today.

GWEN IFILL: Wade Zirkle, one of — a member of Congress, Tammy Duckworth, who lost two legs in combat, said, you look at my legs, I didn’t lose them just knocking — going door to door. So she was trying to make the point that we have already passed that point. In fact, that’s another point that General Dempsey made today, that the idea of women in combat is a role that’s been settled.

Is that something you disagree with?

WADE ZIRKLE: Well, I think, going back to the colonel’s last point, what we have seen in the last 10 years is a counterinsurgency, where there are no front lines.

What we have seen the last 10 years is not necessarily what we’re going to see in the next 50 years, if and when we fight the North Koreans or the Chinese or any number of adversaries. There will be wars where we have front lines and have rear echelon, and the question is, do we want women serving in those very front light infantry roles?

And, if so, just an example here, when a man joins the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps sends him to be a cook or an administrator or a supply clerk or an infantryman. It’s not always that young Marine’s decision. Does that mean a woman that joins the Army will be made to serve in the infantry whether she wants to or not?

GWEN IFILL: Well, I do want to ask Colonel Haring that question, which is about this idea about if a woman chooses not to be part of the infantry, doesn’t want to be at the tip of the spear, does this make it impossible for her not to do that?

ELLEN HARING: No, absolutely not.

We have a volunteer military, and you volunteer for these — the specialties that you’re interested in. So a woman would volunteer for the infantry, or they’d volunteer for whatever specialty they’re interested in.

WADE ZIRKLE: That’s not…

GWEN IFILL: Let her finish, please.

WADE ZIRKLE: But you don’t always get what you want. A lot of the times, you’re sent to a specialty that you didn’t want. And that’s just the way the military is.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me, Mr. Zirkle. We don’t have a lot of time.

I would like to allow her to finish.

GWEN IFILL: Please, let Ms. Haring finish.

Go ahead, Colonel.

ELLEN HARING: Actually, I think I was finished…


ELLEN HARING: … in that we volunteer for the positions that we eventually serve in.

Now, that’s true that you can end up — so, if I volunteer to be a linguist, I could end up — in fact, I talked to a woman today who was an Arab linguist. She actually accompanied the invasion force into Iraq. Her skills, which was her Arab language skills, were vitally important to the infantry that she served with there in Iraq. And, of course, she didn’t anticipate being embedded, but she was very proud of that service, and she’s now a strong advocate for the repeal of this ban.


Wade Zirkle, a final word.


I would just ask this question: Would the colonel support women being part of the draft? And, if so, would she support any able-bodied, able-aged woman being sent to the front lines by law in a compulsory manner to serve as an infantrywoman?

GWEN IFILL: You have a few seconds to answer.

ELLEN HARING: I don’t know how this is going to affect the selective service, but I do think that with full rights comes full responsibilities.

GWEN IFILL: Colonel Ellen Haring, now at the Army War College, and Wade Zirkle, founder of Vets for Freedom, thank you both very much.