WASHINGTON — The top officers in the Army and Marine Corps testified Tuesday that they think it is time for women to register for future military drafts, following the Pentagon’s recent decision to open all jobs in combat units to female service members.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, and Gen. Robert B. Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, both said they were in favor of the change during an occasionally contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the full integration of women in the military. The generals, both infantry officers, offered their opinions in response to a question from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who said that she also is in favor of the change.
"Senator, I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft," said Milley, echoing the remarks of Neller.
After the hearing, Neller added in an short interview that any young American as a rite of passage should have to register with the Selective Service System.
"Now that the restrictions that exempted women from [combat jobs] don’t exist, then you’re a citizen of a United States," Neller said. "It doesn’t mean you’re going to serve, but you go register."
The comments are a first from the Defense Department. Previously, senior Pentagon officials have said only that the issue would need to be researched following Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s historic decision in December to open all jobs in the military to women without exception.
Carter’s action allows women for the first time to apply for a variety of physically punishing positions, including Army and Marine Corps infantryman, as well as Special Operations jobs, including Navy SEAL and Green Beret. The Defense Department plans to begin implementing associated changes in training and evaluation by April 1.
The Selective Service System has existed for decades and was created to make sure the military has enough personnel when it is short-handed in a time of war. A variation of it was first adopted in 1917, as the United States prepared to enter World War I.
But Selective Service laws have never required women to subject themselves to the draft and face the prospect of being forced into military service. The current version of the Military Selective Service Act requires that virtually all men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 26 register, most within 30 days of turning 18. That includes non-U.S. citizens living in the United States, such as refugees.
The generals appeared alongside Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and acting Army secretary Patrick Murphy. Mabus and Neller faced pointed questions about a public rift that emerged last year when the Marine Corps lobbied against integrating all jobs and Mabus and Carter decided to anyway.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Armed Services Committee chairman, asked Mabus why he publicly discounted more than 1,000 pages of research the Marine Corps had compiled backing their position before reading it. McCain also asked Mabus whether he had visited the Marine task force that carried out the research, and the secretary said he had not.
"So you, with a straight face, make claims that the Marines’ study was flawed and biased, even if you did not even go see the study being performed?" McCain asked.
Mabus did not respond but said at another point that it was "clear that the conclusions focused on the average performance of female Marines rather than on individual abilities."
"Averages don’t tell the abilities and performance of an individual Marine," he said. "There were and are capable women who can meet the arduous standards the Marine Corps set for ground combat arms units, and we all know that Marines have never been about average."
In an interview afterward, Mabus said that he had no regrets about how he has handled the issue. But he said he had been "misinterpreted" when it was suggested that he degraded the Marines who took part in the service’s gender-integration research. He pointed out that he approved the unit for a Meritorious Unit Citation award for its work.
"I not only signed it," the secretary said, "I instigated it."