Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford has taken on a key role in the coming decision on whether to open combat billets to women and will essentially get to weigh in twice on the issue, first as commandant and then as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dunford has been adamant on making the Marines' case himself next month on whether to seek exceptions to the directive to lift restrictions before he is succeeded as commandant by Marine Gen. Robert Neller, according to Marine sources.
Dunford will step down as commandant in a formal change-of-command ceremony at the famed Marine Barracks at 8th and I Sts. in Washington on Sept. 24, said Lt. Col. Eric Dent, a Dunford spokesman. The tentative schedule is to have back-to-back changes of command, with Dunford being installed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs succeeding the retiring Army Gen. Martin Dempsey on Sept. 25, Dent said.
As chairman, Dunford will review and make recommendations on the submissions of all the service branches on integrating women into previously restricted Military Occupational Specialties. The topic has attracted significant attention this week as two women completed Army Ranger School for the first time in history.
In January 2013, Dempsey and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed that all MOSs be open to women unless the services submitted detailed reasons for "exceptions" by the end of 2016.
In a memo supporting the directive, Dempsey and Panetta wrote that "Any recommendation to keep an occupational specialty or unit closed to women must be personally approved first by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then by the Secretary of Defense -- this approval authority may not be delegated."
Dunford thus far has been noncommittal on how he is leaning on the issue. In an exchange with Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, during confirmation hearings, Dunford said, "It's clear to me that the Marine Corps understands the direction set by Secretary Panetta."
"At the end of the day, you can be sure that the recommendations that I would make would be based on the impact to the combat effectiveness of the Marine Corps in order to meet the standards that you expect the Corps to meet," Dunford said.
In written responses to questions before his own Senate confirmation hearing, Gen. Neller said the Marines' plan for integrating women was "a deliberate, measured, and responsible approach to research, set conditions and integrate female Marines into ground combat arms MOSs to the maximum extent possible."
Currently, the Marines have the lowest percentage among the services of women in the ranks -- seven percent -- and the Marines are also considered the most traditional of the services and most resistant to social and cultural change.
Marine Gen. James Amos, who was succeeded as Commandant by Dunford, was considered the most resistant among the service chiefs at the time to scrapping the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.