STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On a momentous Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
We're expecting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to make an announcement today. From now on, women will formally be allowed to serve in ground combat.
INSKEEP: To sense just how dramatic this change is, consider how many other milestones the military passed before reaching this one. The move for women comes 65 years after the Armed Forces ended racial segregation.
MONTAGNE: And it comes gays have already been put on equal footing, before women.
Let's begin our coverage with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom's in the studio with us now. Welcome.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Let's clarify exactly what the change is. Women have come under fire in the past. So, in one sense, what's new?
BOWMAN: Well Renee, what's new is Secretary Panetta has lifted what's called a Combat Exclusion Policy. It basically scraps this two-decade-old policy that bars women from serving directly in ground combat. Now, women have been attached to units in the past...
INSKEEP: You've seen them there, in Afghanistan.
BOWMAN: Oh, I've seen them in Afghanistan. And the Marines, for example, have what's called a Female Engagement Team. They would go out in Afghanistan, meet with women and villagers. But they would not be part - officially part of, let's say, a company going on day-to-day patrols, fighting the Taliban. So that's what's new here. They could be part of those ground combat units, going out day-to-day.
And if this all goes into effect, it could open as many as a quarter million jobs to women in, mostly, the Army and the Marine Corps.
INSKEEP: OK, let's keep talking about this, but we'll come back to you in a moment. Let's turn to Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, which is where we sent reporter Blake farmer of our member station WPLN.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: In a barbershop, right across an entrance to Fort Campbell, soldiers line up for buzz cuts.
As news trickled out about women being able to officially serve on the front lines, opinions were mixed. Private First Class Dalton Trimble is part of an infantry unit which currently has no women. He was a bit reluctant to comment but he worries about females fitting in.
PRIVATE FIRST CLASS DALTON TRIMBLE: Like, we're going to have to have a good talking to. Like, hey, there's going to be women around here, have to - what we say now. Like, there's going to be a whole lot of changes.
FARMER: There is a certain kind of chauvinism that is pretty easy to find in units like the 101st Airborne Division, says Staff Sergeant Kanesha Slater.
STAFF SERGEANT KANESHA SLATER: I will tell you, working with infantrymen, male soldiers, they are - a lot of them have that female should be barefooted and pregnant in the kitchen. A lot of them do.
FARMER: Slater says he's not surprised to hear the blanket ban on women in combat roles is being lifted, but she sees logistical problems ahead.
SLATER: They have to look at the whole big picture, because you're going to go into females having the female issues on front lines. And are they going to have the available necessities?
(SOUNDBITE OF A BABY CRYING)
MEGAN DIETRICHS: Here, do you want to hold daddy's dog tags? Buckle your seatbelt.
FARMER: Outside an Army supply store, Megan Dietrichs fastens her son into a car seat. While she's a classic stay-at-home Army wife, this mother of three says it's about time women were allowed to do any jobs, so long as they could pass the stringent qualification tests.
DIETRICHS: I think women can do anything men can do. So it's a frame of mind, not a sex thing.
SERGEANT ALEXANDER CONYNGHAM: I've seen and I've known women who take their physical fitness very seriously, and can hold their own just as much as most men can, so...
FARMER: Sergeant Alexander Conyngham is a cavalry scout. He says his unit does have a few women, but only in support roles. He's married to a military mechanic.
CONYNGHAM: My wife is also part of the 101st Airborne Division, so I feel that I have confidence that she can hold the same role I could. So I don't see it as a problem.
FARMER: She's not making you say that, is she?
CONYNGHAM: No. No. Not at all.
FARMER: Cunningham says you could see the gender announcement coming. Starting a few years ago, women began taking more combat jobs. Recently in Afghanistan, small teams began going out with infantry units so they could engage the female population there. Here at Fort Campbell, women soldiers have been testing body armor that is, for the first time, tailored for the female figure.
Lieutenant Colonel Juanita Chang is one of the highest-ranking women in the 101st Airborne.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL JUANITA CHANG: Considering this interview was talking about women in combat, please make sure you focus in on my combat action badge, which is this right here.
FARMER: Chang has been a military police woman, chemical weapons specialist and a public affairs officer. Never, she says, has gender been a barrier for her.
CHANG: Now, I've never wanted to go to Ranger school. That would've been an option that would've not have been opened to me before. And I don't know, based on this and it hasn't been determined yet, if things like that will be off-limits.
FARMER: But Chang says, in a war that has no clear front lines, women are already doing dangerous work every day.
CHANG: They're earning valor awards besides their male counterparts. We have female recipients of Silver Stars. So they're doing the same tough jobs. They're getting wounded just the same and they bleed just the same.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPE MUSIC)
FARMER: As the sun set on Fort Campbell yesterday, bagpipes wailed out "Amazing Grace." It was a memorial service honoring Specialist Patricia Horn, the 20-year-old from Mississippi died in Afghanistan over the summer. She's one of more than 140 military women to die in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
INSKEEP: And NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is still with us. And Tom, I'm going to remember for quite awhile, Lieutenant Colonel Chang's words there, please focus on my combat action badge. So women have already been under fire, but we're trying to figure out exactly what the change is here. Does this mean if we visited, I don't know, the 101st Airborne or some other frontline unit soon, we would actually find women in positions pulling triggers, leading combat platoons?
BOWMAN: Not just right yet, Steve. Services have to figure out how to make this happen so they could come up with specific physical qualifications, like you have to lift 50 pounds over your head if you want to make it into the infantry, so that might mean a lot of women who want to serve in combat positions still can't.
INSKEEP: Meaning that there might be new qualifications that are for women, that are different than men, but considered good enough.
BOWMAN: Exactly. The other thing is, Panetta is giving the military until January 2016 to identify what he calls special exceptions. That could mean, like, for example, the Green Berets and Navy SEALs might still bar women because of the very, very tough physical standards.
MONTAGNE: Tell us, though, some of the arguments against this course. It has taken so long, because there were some powerful arguments, whether they were powerful emotionally, or actually, practically. Tell us what they are.
BOWMAN: Well, the biggest argument is women just don't have the upper body strength that's needed to carry the weight, to pull themselves over walls in Afghanistan or Iraq, to carry a comrade if that person gets wounded. Those are the big ones. The...
MONTAGNE: But what about esprit de corps? I mean, there's a lot of talk about men - that - finding it uncomfortable, women not having what they need...
BOWMAN: That's another argument you hear, that if there's a women in the unit, the men are automatically going to say, we have to protect Priscilla first or Becky before we protect Tom or Richard, that they're going to be overly protective of that female soldier. That's one of the other arguments. And there's the talk of unit cohesion, for example, band of brothers, if you have a woman in there, it's just not going to be the same.
Those are some of the arguments that critics have against this policy.
MONTAGNE: Of course. That's a new policy...
BOWMAN: But, again, women are already out there. I've seen them myself in Afghanistan, out in the field as personal security details for officers.
INSKEEP: Is that, in the end, the winning argument, women have already done it, so why not recognize that?
BOWMAN: I think that's going to be a big part of the winning argument, that the lines have been blurred, particularly in these counterinsurgencies. There's no well-defined front line anymore.
MONTAGNE: Well, one other thing. I mean, this opens up lots and lots of jobs, but it also opens up lots of opportunity to get to the top. Because you have to be in combat to get to the top.
BOWMAN: Absolutely. That's right. And that's what a lot of the women have been saying, that my career's been stunted because I can't lead men and women in combat. I can't get the combat infantrymen's badge that shows that you've been in combat, you've been fired upon by the enemy. There was an old World War II general, Vinegar Joe Stillwell, who said, my most prized possession is my combat infantrymen's badge.
INSKEEP: Something there I have - something that he received as a younger soldier in the early years of his career. Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reporting this morning as we await the announcement from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that women who have been under fire before, will formally be allowed to serve in direct combat positions. We'll continue covering that story throughout the day on this program and on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - right here on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.