WASHINGTON -- The final barriers to women in the U.S. military began to fall yesterday as Defense Secretary Les Aspin cleared the way for women to fly fighter jets, bombers and attack helicopters and ordered the services to justify why they should be excluded from other combat duties.
The sweeping changes will mean that more than 20,000 jobs on ships and planes that have been the exclusive domain of men -- and necessary for advancement and promotion to the highest ranks of the services -- will now be open to women.
"The steps we're taking today are historic," Mr. Aspin told reporters at the Pentagon. Flanked by the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, he declared that his orders would take effect immediately.
The announcement was greeted with jubilation by more than a dozen service women who were brought to the Pentagon for the event.
"I'll tell you, women are standing in line" for combat ship assignments, said Chief Petty Officer Lisa Bruns, who pumped her fist in the air. "Especially junior women, who are saying, 'We want to go! We want to go!' "
The order to open combat jobs to women came less than a week after the release of an embarrassing report into sexual misconduct at the Navy's 1991 Tailhook Convention. Mr. Aspin told the Navy to begin expanding the ship assignments available to women and to prepare legislation that would repeal a 1948 law prohibiting women from serving on ships assigned to combat missions.
The Army and Marine Corps were ordered to study the possibility of opening to women field artillery, air defense and other combat units where physical requirements are not prohibitive. But Mr. Aspin said the services may still bar women ++ from foxholes or "direct combat on the ground" if they can justify doing so.
Gen. Gordon Sullivan, the Army chief of staff, said women would begin training for combat missions in Apache and Cobra attack helicopters "almost immediately." He predicted that one-third of the Army's 300 female helicopter pilots will volunteer for attack pilot training.
"The Navy is ready to go," said Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, chief of naval operations. Female instructors who fly the EA-6 Prowler electronic warfare jets could be among the first to be deployed aboard aircraft carriers, while others will enter specialized training to qualify for F/A-18 Hornets or F-14 Tomcats.
Although the Marines have no female pilots, Gen. Carl Mundy, the Marine Corps commandant, said he expected applications for flight training to begin arriving today.
The chiefs, some of whom have vigorously opposed having women fight and kill in the front lines of battle, not only endorsed the changes but competed with each other over which service took the lead in integrating women in recent years. Each service also cranked up its public affairs bureaucracy to distribute statistics on women and line up interviews with dozens of women whose military careers would be affected by the changes.
Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff, managed to score a public relations coup by introducing to reporters Lt. Jeannie Flynn, who will begin training at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico immediately to become the nation's first female Air Force combat pilot.
As recently as last week, General McPeak told an audience of military women that he still did not relish the idea of sending women into combat.
"It's hard for me to explain. I just can't get over this feeling of old men ordering young women into combat," he said. "I have a gut-based hang-up here. And it doesn't make a lot of sense in every way; I apologize for it."
Yesterday, General McPeak said bluntly he would "duck" questions about what he really thought of the changes ordered by Mr. Aspin.
"The discussion period's over; we're in the mode now of carrying this out in the best possible way, and we'll do that," he said, breaking into a grin. "There's always a small chance that I was wrong."
For Navy Lt. Heather Cole, who flies oceanographic research missions at Patuxent Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, a combat aviation job will mean a real chance for promotion.
"If you can't get a wartime specialty, forget it," she said.
Navy Lt. Lisa Nowak, who has just begun a one-year test pilot school assignment at Patuxent, said it makes simple sense to let women compete for combat pilot jobs.
"We want naval aviation to be the best it can be, and you can't afford to eliminate half the population if you're going to have the best," said the 29-year-old Rockville native.
She and the other Patuxent women were accompanied by Lt. Cmdr. Win Everett, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot. He said he thinks problems may arise not in the cockpits but in the "ready rooms" where aviators get briefed on their missions before flying and get debriefed after returning.
Within the armed services, polls have shown that most men and women do not favor opening infantry, armor, special forces or Marine amphibious assault units to women, although a clear majority supported the assignment of women to combat aircraft and combat ships. Military women were far more likely than men to oppose exclusion policies.
In the most recent comprehensive survey, the Roper Organization reported last October that that 62 percent of 4,442 active-duty and reserve personnel backed putting women into the cockpits of fighters and bombers, while 66 percent supported integrating aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers.
"Women have proved that they can contribute to the readiness and effectiveness of the force," Mr. Aspin said. "We know from experience that women can fly on high-performance fighter aircraft. We know from experience that they can perform well in assignments at sea. And we know from Operation Desert Storm, Desert Shield that women stand up to the most demanding environments."