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Special Operations Chiefs Sound Off About Prospects for Female Commandos
By Stew Magnuson



The 1997 film G.I. Jane starring Demi Moore was a fictional telling of the first woman to undergo the brutal Navy Sea Air Land team (SEAL) training.
 
Almost 20 years after the film’s release, the U.S. military services are slated to write new procedures to integrate females into combat units. The new policy unveiled recently by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls for all the services, including Special Operations Command, to have their plans ready by the first quarter of 2016. The policy leaves the door open for exceptions, though.
 
Army, Navy and Marine Corps Special Operations Command officers said Jan. 30 that they believed some females could pass the rigorous standards that recruits must demonstrate today.
 
“Frankly, it is probably past time that we relooked at our policy to keep women assigned below brigade level in combat units,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, vice commander of Special Operations Command said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict symposium. SOCOM was involved from the very beginning of the discussions within the Pentagon leading up to the announcement.
 
Women already serve in a variety of roles in special operations forces including cultural support teams and aviation, he said. “It is not something that is Earth shattering to any of us,” he said. SOCOM will be required to make quarterly reports on its progress leading up to the first quarter of 2016.
 
“At the end of that drill, there could be some exceptions, or there may not be,” Heithold said.
 
Maj. Gen. Mark Clark, Marine Corps Special Operations Command commander, said, “I’m sure there are some women out there who would be able to pass the standards that are out there today,” said. “As far as concerns, we don’t have any at this point.”
 
“I have folders full of women in Navy special forces,” quipped Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, Navy Special Warfare Command commander, garnering perhaps the biggest laugh at a military conference this year. Putting aside his gentle jab at former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s famous gaffe about “binders full of women,” Pybus noted that his daughter is currently serving as an officer on a submarine, which was once an all-male assignment.
 
As far as Navy special operators are concerned, he struck a more cautious note. “Some already serve on the battlefield in dangerous situations. And we’re proud to have them. … We will articulate, and review and rearticulate the standards for our force capability,” he said.
 
“First it is about providing the opportunity to meet the qualifications to allow you the opportunity to go through training, and then we will see where that goes,” he said.
 
“And then I have no doubt women will be provided the opportunity to attempt to qualify for this … and I suspect there will be some will meet the challenge,” he said. He then described a recent mission where a Navy special operations forces team in Afghanistan was inserted at a high altitude, then had to march 7 kilometers over “dangerous and steep terrain.”
 
They “conducted a surgical and successful operation — at a cost,” Pybus said.  “There are reasons we have our standards. It is on us to really articulate exactly what we need in a force, and why.”
 
Navy SEAL recruits have some of the highest washout rates in the military. Some published accounts have had it as high as 70 to 80 percent for the men who attempt to make it through the training.
 
Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Irizarry II, deputy commanding general of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, said he didn’t want to speculate on how the studies will turn out. He noted that women have served in Army Special Forces for years in various noncombat roles such as civil affairs, psychological operations and cultural support teams.

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

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