Hundreds of young women on track to join ground-level Army units over the next year would lose their positions if the Trump administration reimposes a ban on women serving in front-line combat.
Those numbers are among the reasons that outgoing Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning believes Trump would have trouble undoing Obama-era orders enabling women to serve in military positions that had long been barred to them.
“It’s hard to roll these things back,” he said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee on his way to a defense conference in Los Angeles this week. “A lot of work has been put in place, and you already have service members serving.”
As Trump fills out his Cabinet, advocates for women in uniform are watching closely to see if he will overturn Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s December 2015 order that opened all military positions to women.
Fanning has a hand in the transition, meeting with Trump advisers to help them be ready when Trump takes office Jan. 20.
“We will do whatever they need us to do to make sure they feel prepared,” Fanning said.
Trump on the campaign trail derided Obama’s “PC” military, but he has not said explicitly whether he plans to reverse Carter’s order opening ground combat assignments to women.
On Thursday, Trump picked retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be his defense secretary.
Mattis, a highly respected commander from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, has acknowledged that women likely will meet the physical demands of serving in front-line positions, but he has questioned whether it’s in the military’s best interest to place women in the most dangerous posts.
The Marine Corps last year sought a waiver from the order that opened all military assignments to women, citing its own study that mixed-gender units are less effective than all-male teams. It did not receive the exemption and must comply with Carter’s order.
“There is a great difference between military service in dangerous circumstances and serving in a combat unit whose role is to search out and kill the enemy at close quarters,” Mattis said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last year.
Since his election, some of Trump’s surrogates, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, have urged him to reverse what they refer to as Obama’s “social engineering” policies.
“It doesn’t do anything to make us more effective or efficient at getting the job done and killing our enemies and protecting our allies. It’s just a distraction,” Hunter, an early Trump supporter and former Marine, told the Washington Times after Trump’s election.
But on the ground, Fanning senses a different reaction among troops when he asks them whether they are ready to serve in mixed-gender combat units.
“When I go out into the field and ask these questions, I get looked out like I’m crazy for asking because it shouldn’t be a big deal,” he said.
Since Carter’s order, a female captain has joined an infantry unit in the Army’s 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. It’s among the units that tend to deploy first in a crisis. Other women have moved into newly open artillery units across the Army.
Elsewhere, about 40 female lieutenants are expected to join infantry and armor units as platoon leaders in the coming year.
“Those who have met these women want to fight with these women because they are forces of nature,” Fanning said.
An additional 178 new female recruits are due to attend basic training in the coming year for infantry and armor positions they could not have tried for in the past. Seventeen women from Northern California enlisted for combat positions this year that would have been barred to them before Obama’s presidency.
In 2011, Obama ended “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Clinton-era policy that barred gay troops from serving openly. In June, his administration ordered the Pentagon to allow transgender troops to serve openly.
The policies reflect the Obama administration’s view that the military stands to gain by recruiting from the widest possible array of qualified military candidates and that many of the groups benefiting from the new policies have already served in harm’s way during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re not allowing gays and transgender troops to serve,” said Fanning, the first openly gay Army secretary. “We are catching up with the fact that they already serve.”
“This makes the military stronger because it better represents society, which is evolving and changing,” he added.
Outside of the Pentagon, several veterans advocacy groups are preparing to defend Obama’s policies.
One of them is the Service Women’s Action Network, which joined a 2012 lawsuit on behalf of four California female military service members that sought to lift the bar on them serving in combat positions. Its next hearing is set for Jan. 12.
The lead plaintiff is Maj. Mary Hegar, a California National Guard helicopter pilot who earned a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross during a deployment to Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has sought to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that the ban on women in combat has been lifted.
But Trump’s election shows that “the lawsuit is still a viable concern,” said Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who is the organization’s chief operating officer. “The issues raised in the lawsuit are still viable concerns, and we’re in a state of limbo.”
Sue Fulton, a former Army captain and member of the first West Point class that admitted women, said Trump should focus on defeating the Islamic State rather than re-erecting barriers to service. She is a former president of SPARTA, an organization that advocates for transgender troops.
“It would be disruptive to the force,” she said. “It would cause problems to the commanders in the field who are moving forward” if Trump reinstates a ban on women in combat or takes action against transgender military service members.
“My belief is that military leadership will focus on the difficult national security issues facing us,” she said. “Trump himself has repeatedly talked about defeating ISIS and our enemies around the world, and I can’t imagine that a leader wouldn’t make that his or her priority.”