FORT BENNING, Georgia -- The Army's new chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, is taking a calculated approach to arguably the most consequential decision of his early tenure -- whether to recommend that any all-male combat roles remain closed to women.
Central to his thinking, he said in an Associated Press interview Friday, is the question of whether allowing women to serve in the infantry, armor and other traditionally male-only fields would affect Army "readiness" for war.
"Does it improve it, or does it hurt it?" he is asking as he and leaders of the other military services weigh whether to recommend to Defense Secretary Ash Carter that he keep some positions off-limits to women. Under a January 2013 edict, all remaining all-male positions will be opened to women unless the defense secretary approves exceptions by January 2016. Carter said on Thursday that he expects to see the services' recommendations by October.
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Milley, who took over as Army chief on Aug. 14 and has seen women in combat during his numerous tours as a commander in Iraq andAfghanistan, said he is not ready to say which direction he is leaning.
"Right now I would call myself right on the line," he said in the interview while flying to Fort Benning to attend an Army Ranger School graduation that included the first women ever to pass the rigorous Ranger training course. After the ceremony he briefly met privately with the two trailblazers, Capt. Kristen Griest, 26, and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, 25.
Milley said that in coming weeks he will weigh a wide range of information, including Army assessments of the experience of Israel and other countries with women in combat, as well as studies by the Marine Corps, data collected during Army experiments and judgments reached by his own experience in war.
"Whatever decision is made is going to have some pretty far-reaching impact," he said. "So it's a big deal, and I want to make sure I'm thinking it through."
Women have been steadily moving into previously all-male jobs across the military, including as members of the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, best known as the helicopter crews that flew Navy SEALs into Osama bin Laden's compound. Women are also now serving on Navy submarines and in some Army artillery jobs.
Officials familiar with the discussions about possibly ending limits on women serving in combat said they believe the Army will allow women to seek infantry and armor jobs. Milley's predecessor as chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, has hinted at that conclusion.
"In order to best manage your talent, you have to pick the best people who can perform to the standards that we have established," Odierno said earlier this month. "If you can meet the standards that we've established, then you should be able to perform in that (position). And I think that's where we're headed."
Friday's Ranger School graduation ceremony offered Milley a chance to get further insight into sentiment within the ranks as he nears his decision.
The pioneer work by Griest and Haver has cast new attention on the obstacles that remain to women who aspire to join all-male combat units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment. Although Haver and Griest are now Ranger-qualified, no women are eligible for the elite regiment, although officials say it is among special operations units likely to be opened to women eventually.
Griest is a military police officer and has served one tour in Afghanistan. Haver is a pilot of Apache helicopters. Both are graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Of 19 women who began the Ranger course, Haver and Griest are the only two to finish so far; one is repeating a prior phase of training in hopes of graduating soon.
Addressing the graduates, Maj. Gen. Scott Miller said no one should doubt that all 96 graduates met Ranger standards, regardless of their sex, and he congratulated them on proving their mettle.
"You'll leave Victory Pond today with a small piece of cloth on your shoulder, but more importantly you carry the title of Ranger from here on out," he said. Miller, who gained his Ranger tab 30 years ago this month, is commander of all Army infantry and armor training and education, including the Ranger School.