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GOP Lawmakers Vow to Review Decision to Open All Combat Jobs to Women

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The Republican heads of congressional defense committees on Thursday pledged to scrutinize Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's decision to open all military jobs -- including combat arms -- to women.

"Secretary Carter's decision to open all combat positions to women will have a consequential impact on our service members and our military's warfighting capabilities," Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the respective heads of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, said in a joint statement.

But the lawmakers stopped short of endorsing or criticizing the move.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat from Illinois and former Army helicopter pilot who lost her legs after being shot down in Iraq, praised the decision in a quote that was widely circulated on social media.

"I didn't lose my legs in a bar fight," she said. "Of course women can serve in combat. This decision is long overdue."

Even so, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees "intend to carefully and thoroughly review all relevant documentation related to today's decision, including the 1,000-page Marine Integrated Task Force report," the lawmakers said.

That report, released in September, was based on an experimental Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force established in July 2014 and made up of 100 women Marine volunteers, 300 male Marine volunteers and Marines directly assigned to the element from active-duty and reserve units.

After occupational specialty training and three months of assessment in a field environment, the Corps found that while there were some examples of integrated units outperforming all-male units, the "overwhelming result was that all-male units outperformed" those made up of both men and women, the Corps' integration office said in September.

The Corps also concluded that "any initial detrimental effects on [unit] cohesion can eventually be mitigated with good training and solid leadership."

Congress has 30 days to review the documents upon which Carter made his call, Thornberry and McCain said in the statement.

"We expect the Department to send over its implementation plans as quickly as possible to ensure our committees have all the information necessary to conduct proper and rigorous oversight," they said. "We also look forward to receiving the Department's views on any changes to the Selective Service Act that may be required as a result of this decision."

In October, Army Secretary John McHugh said, "If pure and true equality" is to be realized in the U.S. military, then women will have to register for the draft. While the draft ended in 1972, the Selective Service Act continues to require all men register for the draft at the age of 18.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada, who chairs the HASC subcommittee on military personnel, said the Congress' first priority is to ensure the safety and security of troops and American citizens.

In past hearings, Heck emphasized that the military must not lower standards to open up combat roles to women. But he also likened the challenge to that faced by civilian women who fought to "be allowed to compete [to become] frontline firefighters."

During a July 2013 hearing, he said women "had to complete all the same physical standards, they rose to the task and they did it, and now we have females that are rising through the ranks in the fire service because they were able to meet the standards."

"Having served alongside women my entire military career, I can say without reservation that they serve with the same dedication, bravery, and selflessness as any man in uniform," Heck said on Thursday. "I plan to have representatives from the Department of Defense before the Military Personnel Subcommittee to discuss the review process and how today decision was reached."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the decision is "a smart move that strengthens our nation."

"I applaud the administration's decision to remove, once and for all, arbitrary barriers to service by women in our" military, he said in a statement. "The U.S. military is adapting to 21st century realities.  Women are already serving on the front lines in hotspots around the world and this simply means service members can be assigned to any position they are qualified for.

Beyond Capitol Hill, the Pentagon's decision was praised by some and condemned by others.

Retired Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, president of the Association of the U.S. Army, a nonprofit that advocates for the service, welcomed the Pentagon's decision.

"There is no doubt our Army is about to take a historic step by dropping all combat exclusion rules closing direct combat jobs to women," said Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff and acting Army secretary. "Experience in recent wars have shown in modern warfare, women are on the front-line of combat -- no matter what the exclusive policy may have said -- and that mixed-gender units can and do perform admirably in combat situations."

Gordon said the key to successfully integrating women into combat arms fields will be how it is implemented. He said it needs to be done with the goal "of making changes that improve the force, without quotas and keeping in mind that policy changes don't eliminate any physical differences between men and women."

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, senior advisor to VoteVets.org, a progressive political action committee, called the move significant and "a welcome development."

"While we need to see how entry of women into all combat roles will be handled from a practical standpoint, what is true is that many women have already been handling ground and air combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have proven themselves more than capable and brave," he said. "It is only right that women be allowed to officially qualify for those roles.  Our military can only get stronger, if we open up to our best, most qualified and able, no matter their gender."

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for women's rights, said it is "a thrilling day for women serving in the military -- and for women across the country.

"We applaud today's announcement that knocks down the last remaining official barrier to women's military service and ensures the full integration of women into all military jobs, positions and units," she said. "Thousands of women will now have the opportunity to be all that they can be and our nation's military will be the stronger for it."

Elaine Donnelly, President of the Center for Military Readiness, which has long opposed placing women in direct combat roles, called on Carter Tuesday to "assign greater weight to Marine Corps empirical evidence than … to wishful thinking, unsupported speculations, and ‘mitigation myths.'"

Donnelly criticized Carter for "[breaking] his own promise to make his decision on recommendations based on the quality of research and rationale behind them." She said Carter, in making his announcement, was "unable to even attempt any criticism of the USMC research on [women in combat], which is unassailable.

"His discomfort is warranted," she added, "since he admitted that women will be involuntarily assigned to go fight ISIS, despite known risks of injury double those of men and higher in dismounted land combat units." She was referring to the terrorist group as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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