Female airmen already serve on the front lines as explosive ordnance disposal technicians. Here, Staff Sgt. Amber Hanlon and an unidentified male airman patrol an area during a deployment to Afghanistan. (Air Force)
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The Air Force's air commandos might soon include women. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, on Jan. 24 reversed the restriction on women in combat departmentwide, opening the door for women to serve in ground combat roles as soon as this year.
"The men and women in uniform are just outstanding individuals and make a hell of a contribution to this country and who are willing to put their lives on the line," Panetta said. "And if they're willing to put their lives on the line, then we ought to recognize that they deserve a chance to serve in any capacity they want."
Women have been able to serve in about 99 percent of the Air Force's jobs, but some of the most well-known, dangerous career fields are still closed: combat control officer, combat rescue/special tactics officer, special operations weather officer, enlisted combat controller, enlisted tactical air command and control, enlisted pararescue and enlisted special operations weather.
The Air Force closed those positions to women because they involved direct combat alongside other services and participated in long-range special reconnaissance or special operations, Air Force spokesman Maj. Joel Harper said.
Air Force TACPs, combat controllers and special operations weather teams deploy alongside Army, Navy and Marine Corps units. Pararescuemen most often deploy on their own with Air Force helicopter crews and aerial gunners, but about 200 serve alongside other U.S. and allied special operations forces.
These jobs add up to about 3,235 positions Air Force-wide, and now the service is working with the other services and U.S. Special Operations Command to review physical and mental standards and determine whether these positions should remain closed. The review is expected to be presented by May 15, with a deadline of January 2016 to implement the policy change.
The Air Force jobs that have been closed to women are among the hardest to fill. The Air Force lists TACP, special operations weather, combat control and pararescue among the top stressed career fields for enlisted airmen. Those jobs typically draw the largest re-up bonuses, and airmen in overmanned career fields are encouraged to retrain into one with chronic shortages.
It's too early to say whether opening those jobs to women would help fill those shortages, Harper said, or whether women would be encouraged to retrain into those stressed career fields.
Women in the Air Force have been serving in combat positions for 20 years. The service opened all combat aircraft positions to women in 1993, one year before the ban on women in combat was put in place.
Retired Col. Martha McSally flew the first combat flight by a woman in 1995, enforcing the United Nations no-fly zone over Iraq. The Pentagon's decision, she said, was overdue and will increase the military's efficiency and effectiveness.
"Women have shown that as an entire class, they should not be restricted," McSally said. "You set the standard and pick the best person for the job."
In 2012, the Air Force decided to open the 3-year-old Air Liaison Officer career field to women, as part of a yearly review of closed AFSCs. This decision was the only one made in recent years, Harper said.
Women also make up about 5 percent of the explosive ordnance disposal career field. The first female aerial gunner flew in 2003. But the pararescuemen and rescue officers who fly with female combat search-and-rescue airmen and female aerial gunners have exclusively been men. That could change, depending on the review.
During the review of job descriptions, leaders will consider the standards that applicants must face. For example, the physical requirements for tactical air control party airmen include: eight chin-ups in two minutes, 60 situps in two minutes, 45 pushups in two minutes, and a 12-mile road march with gear including a 55-pound rucksack.
"If we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn't make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high?" Dempsey said. "Does it really have to be that high?"
Those in the TACP community aren't against including women, as long as they can meet the standards, said Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro, a TACP instructor who is widely known for continuing his career after suffering third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body after his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Del Toro underwent more than 100 surgeries, and now sets the pace for ruck marches during TACP training.
"None of us are against having females in our career fields, we just want them to keep the standards," Del Toro said. "If they keep the standards, rock on. In the mountains of Afghanistan, there's not going to be a male path or a female path. The mountains don't care if you are female or male."
While women will be able to meet the physical requirements to qualify for the jobs, Dempsey said it may be a challenge to have enough qualify to be able to have mentors and leaders in the career fields.
The Jan. 24 announcement came one day after top Air Force officials were called to Congress to testify on the sexual assault scandal in basic military training. Dempsey said that the removal of the barrier blocking women from combat roles could help change a culture that has led to sexual assault.
"When you have one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that's designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that, in some cases, led to that environment," Dempsey said. "I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally."