WASHINGTON - Sgt. Myoung S. Fisher, human resources specialist at the Maryland National Guard, has never served in combat, but she’s enthusiastic about the new opportunity for women.
“Women should feel like they can now serve their country in whichever way they choose to serve, which is on the front lines, behind a desk, in a motor pool, etc. There’s no limits,” Fisher said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed a memo Thursday rescinding a 1994 rule banning military service women from holding direct ground combat positions.
“Everyone, men and women alike, everyone is committed to doing the job. They're fighting and they're dying together, and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality,” Panetta said, adding that 152 women have died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In February 2012, changes to the same 1994 barrier opened up more than 14,000 ground combat positions to women. Thursday’s move begins an incremental process to open all service and special operations command positions to women who meet gender-neutral performance standards.
The new rules will affect the 6,400 members of the Maryland National Guard. The Maryland Army Guard is 16 percent female and the Maryland Air Guard is 18 percent female.
Nearly 20 percent of Army Guard positions, many in infantry, cavalry and Special Forces are closed to women. The Air Guard is more open, with less than 1 percent of its positions closed to women.
Lt. Col. Charles Kohler, public affairs officer at the Maryland National Guard, partially attributes the new policy to changes on the battlefield.
“Today’s modern battlefield is all over the area, it’s not as defined as it used to be. So women are finding themselves in combat,” he said.
At the Maryland National Guard, training schools formerly limited to men will soon become accessible to women, including Army Ranger school, Kohler said.
Under the new policy, performance standards for most positions will be the same for both men and women.
For example, in order to earn a United States Army Expert Infantryman Badge, available only to men, the men at the Maryland National Guard have to receive at least 80 points on a physical fitness test, finish a 12-mile-foot march within three hours while carrying up to 70 lbs. of equipment, and complete a day or night land navigation course.
Lt. Gregg T. Zavadsky, education officer at the Maryland National Guard, sees gender-neutral standards as an important part of the shift.
“If you’re going to have a female soldier that’s expected to do the same jobs as male soldiers, I think they should be willing and able to meet the same standard,” he said.
To Zavadsky that means decision-making on the ground should remain unchanged.
“Decisions are made based on the environment and not the individual soldiers who fall under your command,” he said.
Zavadsky expects the transition for the military in general, and the Guard specifically, to be smooth.
“I really don’t think it will be any issue in the future. It’s going to be a change from what we have now, but obviously as a soldier you're trained to adapt to change in any environment,” he said.
Maryland representatives also weighed in on the Defense Department’s decision to lift the ban.
“America’s military is the greatest in the world and it has been made stronger today with the promise of equal opportunity for women and men,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in a statement.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, compared the move to the September 2011 repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gays from serving in the military.
“Our military is made stronger when it welcomes the service of all brave Americans willing to fight for their country," Hoyer said. "This is another step toward a fully inclusive military, and our nation will be better for it.”