The days of Rambo are over, but the men of Special Operations will still get a say on whether they want women on their small teams working in austere conditions, an Army general said Tuesday.
Speaking at a Pentagon briefing on opening up combat roles to women, Army Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick said he was less concerned about women meeting the physical standards required for Special Operations troops than their ability to adapt to the social and behavioral demands put upon small A-teams of 12 or less.
"There's privacy issues" that have to be taken into account when it comes to "female operators in an austere environment" for long periods of time, said Sacolick, the Army's director of Force Management and Development for Special Operations. "We have some genuine concerns."
"We don't deploy in large formations," Sacolick said. "I'm actually more concerned with the men and their reaction" to having women on their teams, he said. Sacolick said the Army would conduct surveys to gauge the reaction of men. "I need to give them a venue to voice their opinion," Sacolick said.
In stating that the "Days of Rambo are over," Sacolick said he meant that special operators in modern warfare are more valued for their language skills and intelligence than their physical prowess.
Sacolick was on a panel of senior officers from all the services who spoke on their plans to open up Military Occupational Specialties previously closed to women as ordered last January by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The action by Panetta and Dempsey has since been endorsed by current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Under the planning, each of the services will review the current physical and mental requirements for certain infantry, armor, commando and other front-line positions and come up with a common standard for men and women in each MOS.
Col. Jon Aytes, head of the Marines' Military Policy Branch, said he was looking to adopt standards that "don't set our female Marines for failure."
Aytes said that this summer groups of 400 female and 400 male Marines would be selected to run through a series of common tests to develop a gender-neutral standard.
Members of the panel said that under the current guidelines women could possibly begin training as Army Rangers in mid-2015 and as Navy SEALs in 2016. The assumption from the Defense Department is that all jobs now closed to women would be open unless the services come back with detailed reasons for an exception.
The move to open up positions to women reflected the experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women have fought and died on a scale unprecedented in U.S. military history. More than 150 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 300 have received the Purple Heart.
Expanding opportunities for women in the military has generated bipartisan support in Congress. In a statement Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said "I support expanding the eligibility of women to serve in the most elite echelons of our nation's armed forces, including in combat roles, and I look forward to reviewing the details of the Pentagon's announced initiative in this area."
"The plans submitted by the armed forces allowing military women to compete for select combat positions are a move in the right direction," said Vania Leveille, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU last year filed a lawsuit to open up more than 200,000 positions that were then closed to women.
Critics warned that opening up ground combat positions to women would result in lower physical standards and possibly cost lives.
"The courage of our military women is not in question, but empirical evidence that is based on actual experience, not what amounts to Amazon Warrior Myths, indicates that women are not interchangeable with men in direct ground combat," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.
"In that environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or help fellow soldiers survive," Donnelly said.