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Women In Combat: Five Key Questions

The Pentagon's announcement that it is lifting the ban on women in combat raises a host of questions that the military will have to address. Here's a few of them:

How many combat positions are there in the military?

As in all militaries, U.S. combat troops are a relatively small percentage of the overall force. The U.S. military has 1.4 million men and women on active duty and women are barred from 237,000 positions, according to the Pentagon. The Pentagon will now be reviewing those positions and many will be opened up to women.

A large number of those combat positions are in infantry, which means they are primarily in the Army, with a smaller number in the Marines. By comparison, the Navy and the Air Force have fewer combat positions that have been off-limits to women.

Will women still be barred from some units?

All the service branches are supposed to come up with plans by May 15 for integrating women into combat positions and for requesting exemptions, Pentagon officials said.

The services are most likely to request exemptions in elite units where only a small percentage of men are able to meet the demanding standards, such as the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers or Green Berets.

Will the standards be different for men and women?

At a briefing Thursday morning, Pentagon officials repeatedly stressed that there will be "gender-neutral standards" for combat positions. This could make it difficult for women to qualify in roles that specifically require upper-body strength.

For example, to work in a tank, women will have to demonstrate the ability to repeatedly load 55-pound tank shells, just as men are required to do.

Infantry troops routinely carry backpacks with 60 or 70 pounds of gear, or even more. The most common injury in Afghanistan is caused by a roadside bombs. This raises the question of whether a female combat soldier would be able to carry a 200-pound male colleague who has been wounded.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman recently reported on the first two women allowed into the Marines' grueling 12-week Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Va. Both women were in outstanding physical condition, yet both dropped out early in the training.

Aren't women more-or-less serving in combat already?

The years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have blurred, if not erased the traditional notions of combat versus non-combat postions. Battle fronts are fluid and the concept of a defined front-line is virtually meaningless.

The numbers prove it. Some 280,000 women have been deployed to those two countries since 2001, the military says.

Women helicopter pilots fly in and out of combat zones. Women medics treat the wounded wherever they fall. In Afghanistan, the Marines have set up all-women teams, known as "lionesses," who are deployed to speak to Afghan women who would never speak to male U.S. troops. The Marines have found them extremely valuable in gathering intelligence.

More than 130 women have been killed and more than 800 wounded in the Iraq and Afghan wars, according to the military.

Will women now have greater opportunities to advance in the military?

For men, a combat tour has always been seen as an important credential to move up. The policy change is considered a significant step symbolically and in practice, even if the number of women in combat units turns out to be relatively small.

The military is a massive organization and women have found other ways to advance. Women currently make up about 15 percent of the overall force and about 17 percent of the officers, according to the military.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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