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Neller: Marines will review women-in-combat integration if requested by Trump

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller listens to comments during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 2, 2016.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s decision to integrate women into combat positions will be reviewed if requested by President-elect Donald Trump, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said Wednesday.

“If we’re asked what our best military advice is on that, we’ll make that known at that time,” Neller said Wednesday at a defense forum in Washington, D.C.

Last year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened all military positions to women, including positions in the infantry, artillery and tanks that the Marines Corps had recommended remain men-only.

But the incoming Trump administration and the nomination of Gen. James Mattis to defense secretary increases the chances that Carter’s decision will be reviewed and possibly changed, said retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kate Germano, chief operating officer of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit policy group that advocates on behalf of U.S. female servicemembers.

During the presidential campaign, Trump was asked what he would do about the “social engineering” of the military – a reference to recent moves to be more accepting of gay and transgender members, and recent decisions about women serving in combat roles. Trump said he found the military had leaned too far in the direction of political correctness, but would leave decisions on how to fix that to the generals.

“What we fear is they are going to roll back some of the initiatives that have leveled the playing field and extended career opportunities” for female servicemembers, Germano said.

In response, the women’s network is contacting lawmakers and Trump representatives to discuss the group’s concerns.

If Trump does look to generals for guidance on the role of women in combat, it is possible the new Marine Corps-heavy leadership at the Pentagon -- Mattis as defense secretary, Gen. Joseph A. Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Neller as Marine Corps commandant -- could suggest a review of the new policy, Germano said.

In 2015, before Carter made his announcement, the Marines had recommended some combat positions stay closed to women. The conclusion was based on the results of a study that the Marines had conducted on the impact integration might have on combat effectiveness. The study was completed while Dunford was Marine Corps commandant and it found integrated units did not perform as effectively.

“We made a recommendation that certain units should be allowed to have the exclusion,” Neller recalled at the Wednesday forum. Carter “made a decision and said, ‘No, we’re going to open it all up’.”

When Carter held a news conference to announce all military positions would be open to women, Dunford, who was now chairman of the Joint Chiefs, did not attend.

On Wednesday, Neller said the service for now will continue to integrate women into combat positions.

“I’m not going to speculate on what the next administration, or what Gen. Mattis will direct if he is confirmed as the secretary of defense,” Neller said. “So right now, again, we follow our last order and we’re in the process of implementing the last order we’ve been given.”

During the last year, a “small number” of female Marines have begun the tests required to join the newly opened positions and the service has two female lieutenants that are artillery officers and one in armor school, Neller said.

He also emphasized, to him, it is not an issue of women in combat because female Marines have served in combat for decades despite the restrictions on specific fields.

Neller comments Wednesday at a U.S. Naval Institute defense forum in Washington come close to the 10-year anniversary of the death of Marine Corps Maj. Megan McClung, a public affairs officer who was the first female Marine killed in combat in Iraq when her vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Ramadi in December 2006.

“I sent her to Ramadi,” Neller said.

Copp.tara@stripes.com
Twitter:@TaraCopp