U.S. Army First Lt. Shaye Haver, center, and Capt. Kristen Griest, right, at Ranger school graduation, Aug. 21, 2015.

U.S. Army First Lt. Shaye Haver, center, and Capt. Kristen Griest, right, at Ranger school graduation, Aug. 21, 2015. AP Photo/John Bazemore

‘I Don’t Know What The Debate Is,’ Army's Top Officer Says of Women

As Defense Secretary Carter orders senior military leaders to quiet down about women in combat decision deadline, Gen. Mark Milley had one more thing to say.

A few doors down from the packed room at the U.S. Army’s annual national convention this week in which special operations and conventional Army senior leaders sat on a dais discussing doctrine, the new Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley met with a group of military leaders gathered to discuss the importance of mentoring women, the power of high standards and, most notably, the final decisions to come on opening all combat roles to women.

“I have made my recommendations; I typed it up and wrote it myself,” Milley said of his advice to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford regarding the opening of all Army roles to women. By Jan. 1, all combat roles must open to women or a reason given as to why they will not. 

“The secretary of defense is in deliberations and he has asked us, the service chiefs, to allow him decision space to do his deliberations without us making comments, further public comments, on the issue of women in the infantry, armor, field artillery, Special Forces, Rangers etc. So out of respect for the secretary of defense, I will remain silent on anything specific.”

Carter's hush order to the chief and his senior colleagues came in a memo dated Oct. 2., obtained by Defense One, in which he said he will review all of the recommendations handed up to him by the service chiefs and secretaries, looking for their "empirically based" reasons why he should grant any exceptions to the rule opening all combat to women. "I want to hear from everyone before I make a final decision," he wrote. "My ultimate decision regarding any exception to policy request will be based on the analytic underpinnings and the data supporting them. Until I make the final decision, further public discussion of the [review process] is neither helpful nor prudent."

While Milley obeyed Carter's guidance and avoided discussing the specifics of his recommendations, he spoke clearly about his family and its influence on the way he sees the world. As the son of a mother who served during World War II in the Navy’s WAVES program, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, Milley commented on how remarkable it was that she was born in a world in which she couldn’t vote.

“I have got a daughter and a son and to me there is no glass ceiling,” Milley said. “Go for the gold, maximize the potential and get out there and get after it, and I think expectations absolutely matter.”

Then came a question from a soldier who joined the Army in 1991. She pointed out the former WACs, or Women’s Army Corps, members at the gathering earlier in the day and the West Point alum leaders and the two new female Rangers in the room, and asked whether “we will get to a point in 20 or 25 years where we will be agnostic to gender, the best person goes forward and moves out and takes the role?”

Milley made clear he was not giving a hint as to his recommendations. And then proceeded to offer this: “As far as envisioning future warfare, right now, women are in combat, I don’t know what the debate is, actually, frankly, on women in combat. Because women have been fighting in combat for quite some time.”

Milley told the Women's Mentorship Network Symposium that more than 100 women have been killed in action in the post-9/11 wars, including the daughter of a friend. And he took issue with the idea that women couldn’t carry their brothers-in-arms on the battlefield by saying he had seen it himself.

“I personally had a female MP lieutenant work with me when I was a brigade commander – the vehicle blew up, multiple IEDs, multiple RPGs, she was wounded, she jumps up, and one of my guys is hurt really bad, prostrate and bleeding, bad things going on, and then she dashes across 20 or 30 meters of open ground under fire, wounded herself, and drags this guy to safety and this guy was 230 pounds and he had all his stuff on.”

“Strange things happen when adrenaline pumps, and that is just one (story) -- I have seen so many over the last 10 or 15 years.”

And then he closed the answer he had begun with his mother by returning to his family.

“Last time I checked, my daughter is every bit as much of an American as my son. I don’t want to see either one of them get hurt,” he said. “But I think both of them have a right to defend their country.”