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U.S. Special Operations Command may seek exceptions that would keep women out of its elite small units as the Pentagon implements plans to open nearly all military jobs to women by 2016, but it may open more support assignments, a top SOCOM official said.
Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick said the command’s leadership has “some genuine concerns” that must be addressed, while adding that women already serve in some SOCOM support roles. SOCOM will study female integration into all of the special operations forces, including Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, he said.
“Our mission is different so our standards are different,” said Sacolick, director of force management and development for SOCOM.
Sacolick said the social, cultural and behavioral aspects of integration pose bigger concerns than the gender-neutral physical standards that women will have to meet.
“We send 12-man or 18-man or even smaller [units] into very austere or remote environments by themselves,” he said. “They may be the only Americans serving in a particular country. I think that complicates integration.”
Sacolick spoke at the Pentagon on June 18 alongside top personnel officials from the four military services as they presented detailed timelines for how to implement former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s January order to integrate women into all military jobs by 2016.
By January 2016, keeping any military jobs off limits to women will require exceptions to policy personally approved by the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Sacolick said SOCOM will continue to study the matter for the next two years before deciding whether to seek an exemption.
SOCOM will have input into the integration of about 16,000 of the military’s most demanding jobs, including Army special forces, Navy SEALs, Marine critical skills operators and Air Force jobs including combat controllers and special operations weather personnel.
“There are privacy issues. There [is the] health and welfare of female operators in an austere environment. These are things we’re concerned about, probably more than the actual [physical] standards,” he said.
SOCOM is conducting a study focused on the “social implications of integrating women at the team level,” Sacolick said. Also, the RAND Corporation is studying the “behavioral and cultural aspects” of integrating women.
Sacolick did not rule out a future when a Special Forces detachment includes a lone female. He noted that some SOCOM units in civil affairs and “cultural support teams” have opened to women in recent years and that he is impressed by those women.
“Quite frankly, I was encouraged by the physical performance of some of the young girls who aspire to go into the cultural support teams. They very well may provide the foundation for ultimate integration,” Sacolick said.
The Marine Corps, and MARSOC specifically, is assisting SOCOM as it studies integrating women into special operations forces, said Col. Jon Aytes, who oversees an operational planning team for the Corps on the subject. The commandant and chief of SOCOM would likely come to an agreement on whether women will be integrated into the force, and how.
MARSOC has a variety of support personnel, including explosive ordnance disposal techs, communicators and dog handlers. It’s unclear whether women will fill any of those roles.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.