Carter clearly and unambiguously noted that there would be “no exceptions” to this policy. In January 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that all military positions would be open to women, but gave the military services three years to assess the positions that were still closed, conduct studies and experiments, and request any permanent exceptions to that policy. None of the civilian-service secretaries requested any exceptions, nor did the uniformed chiefs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, or the four-star general who heads the U.S. Special Operations Command. The commandant of the Marine Corps, however, requested two broad exceptions: one for specific operational specialties (including infantry officers, machine gunners, and special operations officers) and a second for whole types of units (including infantry regiments and reconnaissance battalions). The commandant at the time was General Joseph Dunford, and this request was one of his final actions before he assumed his current position as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Marines based this request on a two-and-a-half year, $36 million study they commissioned to assess an experimental integrated Marine unit. However, the methodology and conclusions of the study’s 978-page final report (which has not been officially released but is available here) sparked criticism, both for failing to establish clear job-specific standards and for focusing on the average performance of all women in the unit rather than the far more relevant metric of how well individual women performed. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who oversees both the Navy and the Marine Corps, publicly questioned whether Marine leaders had compromised the effort from the start. Mabus told NPR that the study “started out with a fairly large component of the men thinking this is not a good idea and women will never be able to do this. When you start out with that mindset you’re almost presupposing the outcome.” After studying the Marines’ request, Carter rightly chose not to grant those exceptions. The study, he explained, was “not definitive, not determinative,” because averages “do not determine whether an individual is qualified to participate in a given unit.”
The Marines’ basic argument was even more deeply undercut by the strong support for integration by the other services. In effect, the Marines were claiming that Marine riflemen, reconnaissance specialists, and machine gunners were somehow fundamentally different from their counterparts in Army infantry and paratroop units, Ranger battalions, Navy SEAL teams, and other elite special-operations units. The graduation of three women from the Army’s grueling Ranger school earlier this year further undermined the Marine Corps’ argument that women would not perform well under the toughest field conditions. Carter clearly found the Marines’ separatist logic unpersuasive. In his announcement, he deliberately reinforced that the U.S. military is a joint force that will operate with a single set of standards.