As the U.S. military approaches one of its most significant decision points in decades, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford may be poised to be a key player in more than one role. — not once, but twice.

With Dunford's nomination to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff his nomination expected to meet fast approval after a Thursday hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, some are wondering how he Dunford will approach the issue of opening ground combat units to female troops. It's a question he'll likely face twice — first as the commandant and, if approved, as chairman. in this job and the next.

The question of how to integrate women into combat arms has been dogged ing the services since early 2013, when Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta set a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline to open all closed billets and units to women. All exclusions to this new rule would have to be based on specific, well-researched recommendations from the service chiefs, they decided.

"Any recommendation to keep an occupational specialty or unit closed to women must be personally approved first by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then by the Secretary of Defense; this approval authority may not be delegated," Dempsey and Panetta wrote in a memo about the change.

Because of this rule, Dunford, who became the commandant in October, may be in a position to give first approval to his own recommendations, as well as those of the other service chiefs.

"It certainly raises questions about how the process as far as how that's going to work," said Greg Jacob, a former Marine infantry officer and the policy director for Service Women's Action Network. "We think that needs to be addressed during confirmation."

Jacob said the scenario did not necessarily represent a conflict of interest or even a definite problem, but it did bear further discussion.

"We want to make sure that process has the same level of integrity is had when it was initiated," he said. "They decided to make the chairman and secretary of defense the final arbiters on this for a reason."

Cpl. Caroline Ortiz, a Marine with the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, carries a shell during an artillery assessment at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff

Dunford could face questions about how he'll handle those decisions The question may well arise during Thursday's hearing.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who authored legislation aimed at supporting Panetta's combat integration mandate, is aware of the issue and her office has discussed it, according to said a staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Staff members with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also said her office is also following the questions surrounding the upcoming women in combat decision. McCaskill is known for her sponsorship of sweeping legislation aimed at cracking down on sexual assault in the military.

Sarah Feldman, a McCaskill staffer, requested anonymity said McCaskill was aware of the issue, but it was unclear whether she would raise it during the hearing.

A spokesman for Dunford, Lt. Col. Eric Dent, Dunford's spokesman, emphasized that Defense Secretary Ash Carter would have the final say on decisions for the Defense Department. He added that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus would also weigh in on any Marine Corps recommendations from the Marine Corps regarding exceptions to the new policy.

"It's safe to assume that Gen. Dunford's approach to a Marine Corps potential recommendation for an exception to policy would remain consistent, whether he's the service chief or the chairman, if confirmed," Dent said.

At this point, whether or not Dunford will ask for any exceptions to the combat integration rule is unknown a matter of speculation. In advance of the 2016 deadline, the Marine Corps opened its enlisted and officer infantry training schools to female volunteers, successfully graduating hundreds of enlisted troops but no officers. It also assembled a gender-integrated ground task force of volunteers, assessing its success in training and completing combat tasks over the course of nearly a year.

A report compiling findings from the task force is expected to reach Dunford by the end of the summer.

The commandant himself has remained reticent on the topic ahead of a decision point, telling Marine Corps Times in April that he was "going to try to be as open as possible and not make any conclusions until the data is all in."

"I'm going to try to be as open as possible and not make any conclusions until the data is all in," "And then bBy the fall, we'll know what direction we're headed in," he said. "" Dunford told Marine Corps Times in April. "So at this point, there's nothing I would say never to, but there's also nothing I would subscribe to. That's just where we are in the process."

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