WASHINGTON - Opening more jobs in the military to women -- in particular lifting the combat exclusion -- is the right thing to do, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday as he brushed aside any notion that the armed forces would have to lower standards to do so.
Hagel's comments came during a visit with troops at U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., in response to a question about whether the policy change could affect mission success. On Tuesday, senior defense and military officials unveiled the services' respective plans for lifting the combat exclusion for women.
"I think everyone understands it's the right thing," he said. "It's not a matter of lowering standards to assist women to get into combat positions." Hagel added that part of the process will be finding "the right balance of implementation."
The plan to remove gender-based standards was announced by former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in January. The branches have a deadline of January 2016 to follow through – including ending the ban on women serving in the Navy SEALs and the Army Rangers -- with any exceptions requiring the approval of the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.
"Why shouldn't [women] have the same opportunities as men?" Hagel responded to his questioner.
Hagel also said increases in cases of sexual assault in the military are a "scourge and a very, very dark mark on all of the success of this institution." He said "there is no higher priority" he has as defense chief "than to make everybody accountable all the time, up and down the line."