Women could be great Navy SEALs, says head of Special Ops

The head of Special Ops has indicated his support for integrating women into the elite force. The necessity, he adds, is ensuring that all special operators are in peak physical condition.

Courtesy of David Hernandez/DOD/Reuters/File
US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sienna De Santis and US Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Heidi Dean greet children during a patrol in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan, in this 2010 file photo. The head of Special Operations Forces (SOF) says he supports the integration of women into the Navy SEALs.

The head of US Special Operations Forces (SOF) says he supports the integration of women into the elite force.

“It’s time to do this,” says the organization’s top officer, Adm. William McRaven.

“We’ve had women supporting direct Special Operations for quite some time,” he added in remarks Tuesday morning at the Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington.

The necessity, he said, is ensuring that all special operators are in peak physical condition. “The one thing we want to make sure [we do is] we maintain our standards,” McRaven said.

It’s a sentiment echoed among current and former special operators.

Retired Lt. Col. Gary Sargent, a former SOF officer, says he supports integrating women into SOF, as long as they meet the physical requirements.

As a special operator in Haiti in the 1990s, for example, he recalls lugging 140 pounds of gear. His radio operator carried considerably more, says Sargent, who is now director of business development for Asymmetric Technologies.

The physical requirements of Ranger School, or even infantry basic training, are considerable, and only a limited number of women are likely to qualify, current SOF operators warn.

The question, Sargent says, is whether lawmakers – alarmed that more women don’t meet rigorous physical standards to be infantry or special operators, for instance – become tempted to lower them.

Col. Ingrid Gjerde, an officer in the Norwegian infantry for 25 years and commander of Norwegian forces in Afghanistan in 2012, says the physical standards are something that female troops in Norway have fought to uphold.

“I have to be very clear: You have to meet the physical standards, because the job is still the same,” she says. “It works very well as long as women hold the standards.”

Because the physical standards are clear, she says, the “few women” who are attracted to serve in the infantry and cavalry “do a great job in the Norwegian Army.” She adds, “We would like to have more, but we have trouble attracting them.”

For this reason, Gjerde says, some Norwegian politicians have pushed for specific shares or percentages of women within the ranks. She says that she and other female troops have pushed back. “We have to be careful with that,” she says.

Currently, women make up less than 5 percent of the troops in her infantry units. The fact that women are serving has not discouraged men from joining the ranks of these same elite units, she adds.

McRaven said that he has been reading recent Pentagon guidance about establishing “gender-neutral standards.”

Currently, he said, “we have no gender standards,” since it is only males who have been going through Ranger and Navy SEAL training, for example.

It’s important that there is not a two-tiered standard of physical requirements going forward, he adds.

That said, McRaven says he has no doubt that some women will flourish in the elite SOF community. “I guarantee you” that there will be females who come to the basic underwater demolition (BUD/S), the Navy SEAL course, “and do a phenomenal job.”

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