As of today, the Department of Defense has fully rescinded the 1994 Direct Combat Definition and Assignment Rule that first closed off billets in combat units to women. Speaking at the official announcement of the change, which will open thousands of positions to women for the first time, Dempsey pressed back particularly strongly when challenged on the notion that adding women to these new roles would be a hindrance to the development of the military.
Recalling his days at West Point, Dempsey told reporters that the military academy had become a much higher quality institution after the admission of women. The same transformative property would hopefully be seen in changing the culture of the military regarding sexual assault, according to Dempsey:
DEMPSEY: We’ve had this ongoing issue with sexual harassment, sexual assault. I believe its because we’ve had separate classes of military personnel at some level. Now, its far more complicated than that. But when you have one part of the population that is designated as ‘warriors’ and one part that is designated as something else, that disparity begins to establish a psychology that — in some cases — led to that environment. I have to believe the more we treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.
Instead of taking the stance of some commentators that adding women to combat units would diminish their effectiveness or “humiliate” the men serving alongside them, Dempsey rightly focused on the risk of assault that women in the armed services face. Approximately one in three military women have been sexually assaulted, about double the rate of those in civilian life.
In the rest of their conference, Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta clarified many of the details of the shift. New positions are not opening immediately for women, as the military departments now have until May 15 to submit plans on how they’ll implement the changes, with the process of integration to be completed by Jan. 1, 2016.
The new policy also doesn’t mark a change in the Selective Service process, where young males must register for the draft upon reaching the age of eighteen, according to Panetta. Regarding infantry and other ground combat positions, Panetta made clear that the onus is now on the service branches to justify to the Pentagon reasons why women should be barred from certain billets. The move to integrate women will also allow women more options in terms of advancing their career, as combat roles offer officers and enlisted soldiers alike greater ease in obtaining promotions.
“If they can do the job, if they can meet the standards, if they can meet the qualifications that are involved here, there is no reason why they shouldn’t have a chance,” Panetta said. “That’s just a fundamental belief of mine and I think it’s a fundamental belief of the American people.”