WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 22, 2013) -- Last month the Army announced its plan to integrate women into combat roles, opening positions within 27 brigade combat teams, which include nine National Guard brigade combat teams.The Army also opened positions within field artillery battalions down to the company level, so that female officers could be battery commanders and platoon leaders.Other positions throughout the Army are being examined and could possibly open to women under the "Soldier 2020" initiative, said Col. Linda Sheimo, chief of the Command Programs and Policy Division at the Directorate of Military Personnel Management, Army G-1.SOLDIER 2020The Army's "Soldier 2020" initiative is about having the best Soldiers possible in the Army by 2020, Sheimo said. Part of that will be re-evaluating standards and validating gender-neutral standards for Army jobs, she explained.The Soldier 2020 initiative requires the scientific validation of all physical fitness standards that are currently in place. This evaluation could make way for the development of a pre-test, so that individuals can take more time to train and prepare on their own for certain jobs."We're not lowering standards," Sheimo said. "We are ensuring that every Soldier knows what the standard is. The reality is that you will have some cases where men will not be able to meet that minimum requirement, they just won't have the physical capability, and there might be some women that do."By summer 2015, recommendations will be made to Army senior leadership about what jobs can and cannot realistically be opened to women, she said.PROVEN HISTORYWomen fighting for their country is nothing new. From enlisting undercover like Deborah Sampson, to firing cannons like Molly "Pitcher" Hays McCauley, women have been fighting in combat since the Revolutionary War.In the 1940s, the Army first made headway into incorporating women into the ranks. It was then, in 1942, the military allowed women to serve as part of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, later the Women's Army Corps. In 1978, that organization was dissolved and the WAC was integrated into the Regular Army.EXCLUSION FROM COMBATIn 1994, then Secretary of Defense Les Aspen put into effect the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, or DGCAR. The rule prohibited women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level.As part of the DGCAR, the Army's Training and Doctrine Command reviewed positions that were closed to women every three years, Sheimo said.In February 2012, the Army asked for an exception to the DGCAR to be included as part of the Secretary of Defense's Report to Congress on women in service. This allowed the Army to open up non-commissioned officer, or NCO, and officer ranks in nine brigade combat teams. The Army received the go-ahead, May 14, 2012.About 280 women were assigned to the newly opened positions, Sheimo said. The Army conducted two rounds of focus groups, interviews and survey, months apart, to assess the integration of women into those units."The findings were pretty much all positive," Sheimo said. "There were concerns about women's ability to do physical tasks, but over time, they were able to keep up with physical training and those types of things. There's at least one brigade combat team, which was in that first group, that is actually deployed right now with females serving in those positions."The women currently serving on those teams will serve as cadre and pave the way for more to follow, Sheimo said.Former Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta made the decision to eliminate the DGCAR based on the recommendation of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sheimo said.The elimination of the policy meant the Army would now have to ask for an exception to policy to exclude women from units, positions or occupations. Previously, the Army had to request an exception to policy for a woman to serve as stated above based on the DGCAR. However, all notifications or requests for exception to policy must go through the Secretary of Defense to Congress and complete a required waiting period before the changes can go into effect Sheimo said."It's about making sure we have access to the best individuals and then giving them the opportunity to find their niche where they can serve the Army the best," Sheimo said.MORE JOBS TO OPENWhen the Soldier 2020 recommendations are made in 2015, Sheimo said the default will be to open jobs to women. If the Army wants to keep certain jobs closed to women, officials must present a case for that, and ask for an exclusion, she said.After passing through Army senior leadership, those recommendations will move on to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and finally to the Secretary of Defense. Then, the Secretary of Defense will notify Congress of any decisions, Sheimo said.In order to integrate women into new career opportunities as soon as possible, the Army offered female NCOs the option to reclassify into occupations previously closed to women.The Army will follow a "stairstep" approach in placing officers and senior NCOs in previously closed units to facilitate integration of female Soldiers in positions recently opened to them.Because the reclassification is voluntary for NCOs, however, there may be few NCOs who will request this opportunity. The changes in the force structure and the size of the Army will also limit the number of NCOs who will be able to reclassify.INTEGRATIONSheimo said she thinks women will be able to integrate into newly-opened units the same way men already integrate themselves into those units, by proving their competency."In the cases where women have integrated really well, it is because they proved themselves, just as men have to do," Sheimo said.Sheimo also said she thinks that having women in units could make them better by bringing to them unique capabilities that closed units don't already have."Having females as part of combat teams can be a force multiplier, since women can engage with the local women in a particular country," Sheimo said. "There are some occasions, such as at security check points, where it is inappropriate for a woman to be checked by a man, and there are cultures where it is unacceptable for a woman to interact with a man."Could the unit be better because females come into it? Will they raise the bar?" Sheimo asked. "Units do well when competent Soldiers arrive, are able to accomplish all tasks to Army standards and are encouraged to meet their potential, regardless of diversity."