President-elect Donald Trump could reverse a historic policy change kicked off in 2013 allowing women to serve in direct combat roles, and that has advocates of the change worried.
"We are absolutely concerned," Kate Germano, a former Marine lieutenant colonel who now serves as COO of the Service Women's Action Network, told Business Insider.
SWAN and other groups have long lobbied for a change in the policy excluding women from certain direct combat roles, such as infantry and artillery. They won that fight in 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered all military services to lift the ban on women in combat roles, giving them until January 2016 to fully integrate or ask for special exemptions.
Only the Corps asked for that exemption, which was overruled by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
However, since Congress never passed a law on the issue, a Trump White House could just reverse the decision made by the Obama administration, or order exceptions to be made for certain services, such as the Marine Corps.
"It's our earnest hope" the next administration will look at quality of service members rather than gender, said Germano, though some things Trump has said on the campaign trail cast doubt on whether that will be the case.
When asked in October by a former Army colonel what he would do about the "social engineering and political correctness" that had been imposed on the military, Trump seemed to agree that the military's acceptance of transgendered troops and women in combat roles was wrongheaded.
"You're right. We have a politically correct military, and it's getting more and more politically correct every day," Trump said. "And a lot of the great people in this room don't even understand how it's possible to do that. And that's through intelligence, not through ignorance — believe me — because some of the things that they're asking you to do and be politically correct about are ridiculous."
Though he added: "I would say I would leave many of the decisions of some of the things you mentioned to the generals, the admirals, the people on top."
As it stands right now, there's at least one person in top leadership who seems to disagree with the policy change — Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford — who would be one of Trump's closest military advisors, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Others in the Republican Party seem to be weighing in ahead of Trump's transition as well. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a former Marine officer who has been floated as a potential pick for Defense Secretary, on Sunday called for a "counterrevolution" in the military.
“It doesn’t do anything to further our capacity as war fighters," Hunter told The Washington Times of women being placed in infantry roles. “It doesn’t do anything to make us more effective or efficient at getting the job done and killing our enemies and protecting our allies. It’s just a distraction. It’s not like there are thousands of women getting into the infantry now. It will never be that way.”
Like Hunter and others, critics of the policy change have referred to it as "social engineering" within the military ranks. But Germano disagrees with that assessment, telling Business Insider it's not social engineering but instead, expanding the pool of qualified applicants who can do jobs within the military.
"We believe that women who are highly-qualified for the position and can do the job should have the opportunity to do the job," Germano said.
A reversal in policy wouldn't just affect women who had planned to go into combat roles in the future. Since the military has been slowly integrating them into the force, some women would have to be taken out of the roles they had trained for alongside men and put back into non-combat jobs.
In October, the Army graduated 10 new female infantry officers, many of whom are now going through follow-on training before they will be assigned to infantry units. Another woman, Capt. Kristen Griest, transferred to the infantry in April after she became one of the first women to graduate from the Army's Ranger School.
If President-elect Trump decides to change the policy back, he would deal with pushback from the courts. A 2012 lawsuit filed by four female service members who claimed that being excluded from some roles was a violation of their constitutional rights is still ongoing.
The DoD tried to have the suit dismissed after the ban was lifted, but it still remains in litigation — in part because the next president could single-handedly deny those women those rights in the future.
"If we have a Republican president, we may well be in the same position we were when we filed this complaint, a categorical exclusion of all women from combat units," Steven Perry, an attorney for the four women, told a judge in federal court, according to the Military Times.
The Judge agreed with that assessment, and set the next court date for January 12 — eight days before Trump is inaugurated as president.
Regardless of the final status of women in combat roles, it's clear that women have been involved in combat through the Global War on Terror. Two of the plaintiffs in the 2012 suit were wounded and awarded the Purple Heart medal, and many other women have served alongside male infantrymen in Iraq and Afghanistan on "female engagement teams."
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