Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute on Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said “the jury is out” on the success of having women serve in infantry roles, noting that the sample size remained too small to make clear determinations.
“This is a policy I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small we have no data on it. We’re hoping to get data soon,” Mattis said.
In January 2017, the first three women infantry Marines were added to an infantry battalion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, but women didn’t always have the opportunity to serve in the same combat positions as men.
Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in 2015 that starting in January of the following year, the military would require all combat roles be open to both men and women. However, uncertainty over whether Mattis would continue this policy has remained despite his statement during his confirmation hearing that he had no plans to reverse the policy.
“This is an area we’re going to have to resolve as a nation,” Mattis said Tuesday. “And the military has got to have officers who look at this with a great deal of objectivity, and at the same time, remember our natural inclination to have this open to all. But we cannot do something that militarily doesn’t make sense.”
Mattis said the issue touched on “some people’s perspective of what kind of society we want.”
“You know, in the event of trouble, you’re sleeping at night in your family home and you’re the dad, mom, whatever, and you hear glass break downstairs – who grabs a baseball bat and gets between the kids’ door and whoever broke in and who reaches for the phone to call 911? In other words, it goes to the most, almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable,” he said responding to a question about the matter.
The defense secretary went on to explain that although there are “a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this,” the number is still very low.
“Right now, it’s not even dozens, it’s that few,” Mattis said, adding that they are still trying to “give it every opportunity to succeed if it can.”
Questions have been raised in the past about Mattis’ opinion of women serving in combat roles, including during his confirmation hearing. However, at his confirmation hearing, he assured lawmakers that he had “no plan to oppose women in any aspect” of the military.
“The standards are the standards, and when people meet the standards, then that is the end of the discussion on that,” he said at the time.
CNN’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.