WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told troops in Nebraska that integrating women into combat positions is “the right thing,” but said the Defense Department won’t be artificially easing requirements to pave the way.
“It’s not a matter of lowering standards to assist women to get into combat positions,” he said Thursday at Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command. “Women don’t want that.”
In response to a question from a female petty officer about how women in special operations units could affect mission success, Hagel said positions should be open to women on three conditions — “if they want, if they’re qualified, if they can do the job.”
Women could be on their way to joining the Navy SEALs and other elite fighting units, according to plans announced this week at the Pentagon by the military services and U.S. Special Operations Command.
Earlier this year, Hagel’s predecessor as defense secretary, Leon Panetta, lifted a ban on women in combat roles that has been in place since 1994, and ordered the services and SOCOM to present plans to integrate all units by 2016.
But the question of setting standards looms large, with each service branch responsible for establishing requirements to qualify for positions in the next few years.
Speaking to STRATCOM troops, Hagel compared expanding the combat roles of women to the racial integration of the military.
And along with gender integration, Hagel promised to stamp out what he called the “blight” and “scourge” of military sexual assault. DOD has been rocked by successive scandals, and Pentagon statistics indicate a recent sharp increase in the number of sexual assaults.
“That is a very, very dark mark on all the success of this institution,” he said.
Troops at Offutt lobbed several questions about erasing lines between the service branches. A petty officer in the Navy’s dark blue camouflage uniform asked whether Hagel agreed with the House of Representatives, which recently passed a bill to replace the hodge-podge of combat uniforms throughout DOD with a common one.
Hagel said he’d be guided by the opinions of troops: “I guess the question should be put to you – what do you think of it?”
The young Navy man apparently likes his uniform as is.
“I think each service is unique, just as our uniform is unique,” he said. “Unit cohesion is part of our uniform, and knowing our brothers.”