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Pentagon OKs Women In Combat: Can Culture Catch Up With Policy?


The Pentagon has been debating the role of women in combat for generations. Women started out in the military in support positions, far away from the actual fighting. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan essentially erased the idea of front lines. And even if women weren't allowed to be in combat, they were. Last week though, the secretary of defense, Ash Carter, made it official.


ASH CARTER: Women will now will be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before. They'll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They'll be able to serve as Army Rangers in green berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously opened only to men.

MARTIN: It's a policy change that could have altered the career path of our next guest. Captain Zoe Bedell was a Marine Corps logistics officer. She served two tours in Afghanistan. She left the Marine Corps in 2011. Bedell is a plaintiff in a suit filed by the ACLU against the Department of Defense that sought to overthrow the ban against women in combat. Zoe Bedell joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ZOE BEDELL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I guess first I would just ask your reaction to Secretary Carter's announcement. I assume this must be pretty welcome news.

BEDELL: It is, absolutely. It sort of even gives me chills listening to that little clip in the introduction. We're very excited about this. And as you mentioned, I served in the Marine Corps. So I was particularly excited to see that there would be no exceptions, even for the Marine Corps.

MARTIN: We should note the Marine Corps previously had asked for a partial exception to the ban, and Secretary Carter said that wouldn't be happening. You joined the Marines after college. What were your expectations? Did you think of it as a career?

BEDELL: You know, I went in open-minded. Anything was possible. And I considered staying. I considered getting out after four years. But by the time I had finished my four-year tour, there was a lot of frustration. And that led to my decision to get out.

MARTIN: When did you start to feel that you were going to hit some kind of glass ceiling in the military?

BEDELL: Well, you know, when you are at the basic school, which is the first round of Marine Corps training for officers, you list your preferences for your military job. It's called your military occupational specialty. And I knew this would be the case, but women have fewer options. Infantry was not on the list. Artillery was not on the list. Human intelligence was not on the list, which was something I found particularly frustrating 'cause I had studied Arabic. And so that was sort of the first time that I had been directly confronted with it. And as I said, I understood. I knew that was the policy. But it's - especially when you're that young, you don't necessarily get what that really means. And it basically is a policy that says this group of people is not up to the task. These - this group of people is not equal. And that can permeate the way you're treated and the way that women are viewed in the force because the institution is saying that you're not good enough.

MARTIN: And I think it's important to note, having done a combat job is important for a career in the military. It's how you get promoted.

BEDELL: Yes, that's a great point. And, you know, if you think about what the Marine Corps does, the Marine Corps fights. It is a war-fighting organization. And so if you are being excluded from doing what the organization does, you're going to have more limited opportunities. You're going to always be marginalized within that organization.

MARTIN: Do you think it will be implemented smoothly? I mean, is the policy now catching up with the culture of the military, or does the culture have to catch up with the policy?

BEDELL: It's a little bit of both, I think. The potential is there for them to do this as smoothly as it can go. I'm hoping that the Marine Corps says, you know what? This is what we do. We are - when we are given a mission, we carry it out better than anyone, and then they live up to that reputation because that's what attracted me to the Marine Corps in the first place. And I - I'm very optimistic that they won't disappoint.

MARTIN: Zoe Bedell, she served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. She's now a law student at Harvard University. Thanks so much for talking with us, Zoe.

BEDELL: Thanks again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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