[Excerpt] Over the past two decades of conflict, women have served with valor and continue to serve on combat aircraft, naval vessels, and in support of ground combat operations. The expansion of roles for women in the armed forces has evolved since the early days of the military when women were restricted by law and policy from serving in certain occupations and units. Women are not precluded by law from serving in any military unit or occupational specialty. However, a 1994 Department of Defense (DOD) policy prevented women from being assigned to units below brigade level where the unit’s primary mission was to engage directly in ground combat. This policy barred women from serving in infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers, and special operations units of battalion size or smaller. On January 24, 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rescinded the rule that restricted women from serving in combat units and directed the military departments to review their occupational standards and assignment policies for implementation no later than January 1, 2016.
This recent policy change followed extensive reviews by various commissions and others on issues regarding women in the military and policies for their assignment and career progression. For example, the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 (P.L. 110-417) established the Military Leadership Diversity Commission whose mandate was to conduct a study and report on the “establishment and maintenance of fair promotion and command opportunities for ethnic- and gender-specific members of the Armed Forces.” Among its recommendations, the commission stated that DOD should take deliberate steps to open additional career fields and units involved in direct ground combat to women. The commission’s recommendations prompted Congress to direct DOD, in the Ike Skelton National Defense Act for Fiscal Year 2011 (P.L. 111-383), to conduct a review to “ensure that female members have equitable opportunities to compete and excel in the Armed Forces.”
With the cancellation of the policy banning women from serving in combat units, some have questioned whether current occupational standards for entry into these units should be kept in place or modified. Proponents of change maintain that the existing standards are artificially high, and act as a de facto exclusionary barrier to the entry of women into combat occupations. Defenders of the current standards view any reductions to the existing standards as potentially damaging to military readiness.
Congress has established requirements, definitions, and criteria for the development and application of “gender-neutral” occupational standards, and has oversight of all DOD decisions in this matter. Congress may also consider additional issues including equal opportunity, equal responsibility (such as selective service registration), readiness and cohesion, effectiveness, and the overall manpower needs of the military.