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Air Force Ready to Open All Combat Jobs to Women, Secretary Says

Command failures and a "leadership gap" were cited repeatedly as major factors in the sexual abuse of women recruits by enlisted trainers at at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, but no officers will face judicial punishment.

The Air Force is ready to lift all restrictions on combat jobs and other military occupational specialties for women and also is taking a "lean forward" approach on allowing transgender airmen to serve openly, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Monday.

"I don't see any barriers to opening up those remaining career fields" that are still closed to women so long as gender-neutral standards are kept in place, she said to applause from the audience at the Air and Space Conference, held in National Harbor, Maryland, and sponsored by the Air Force Association.

James also said the service was "looking to see if there are ways that we can make reasonable accommodations" for transgender airmen.

The controversial issue of lifting restrictions on women serving in combat MOSs -- mostly in the infantry, armor and artillery -- will come to a head at the end of the month. That's when the services must report to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on whether they will seek "exceptions" to the 2013 order from then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to gender integrate all billets.

The Marine Corps last week said that its extensive testing of mixed-gender units in combat training showed that women were more prone to injury and also that such outfits failed to perform as well as all-male units.

James said the Air Force has been the most aggressive of the services in lifting restrictions on women and that now only seven MOSs in Special Operations remain closed to them.

"We have to make sure we have the proper standards for those who are applying for these career fields," James said. "We have to make sure these are going to be gender neutral and operationally relevant standards against each of the career fields. Put a different way, the standards have to be the same for men and women.

The bottom line was that "You've got to have what it takes and it's got to be the same for men and women," she said.

"My expectation is that once we have those gender-neutral and operationally relevant standards in place, I don't see any barriers to opening up those remaining career fields," James said, referring to the Special Operations MOSs.

"I say let the best person -- whether that person is a man or woman -- let's compete for the job (and) just make sure under no circumstances do we lower the standards," she said.

On the transgender issue, a six-month review ordered by Carter was underway, James said. There are "medical issues to look at," she said.  "There are practical matters to be worked through," she added, without going into more detail.

However, the secretary said, "I think the approach is one of a lean forward approach" in the Air Force to the transgender issue.

The approach is one "that says no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, if you are capable at doing your job, if you're a good Airman, if you believe in integrity and service and excellence in all we do, then we're trying to lean forward and say you're the type of person we want in our Air Force," she said.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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