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New London — Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said the military's ban on women in combat had become embarrassing, and the decision to lift it may one day affect the draft.
"What we've really done is spun the paradigm on its head," Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in his first visit to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Thursday.
The question isn't "should a woman serve" in a job specialty, Dempsey said, it's "why shouldn't a woman serve?"
"Will this expand into the selective service? It might," he said. "But that's a decision of Congress. I can certainly make the intellectual argument, but we'll see what they want to do with that."
Dempsey addressed the cadets, faculty and staff at the academy Thursday before going to Electric Boat in Groton to see a Virginia-class submarine under construction. A cadet at the academy asked Dempsey if he thought Congress would change the selective service system, which currently requires only men to register for the draft.
Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week rescinded the rule that bans women from serving in combat. The 1994 rule closed 66 job specialties to women across the services.
"There's a lot of men who can't meet the standard to be infantrymen, and a hell of a lot of men who can't make the standard to be Rangers or SEALs," Dempsey said at the academy. "... But I want to know that we've got a gender-neutral standard and that the playing field is level."
Dempsey told the cadets that the rule — an "emotional anachronism" — ignored reality. To build a force for 2020, he said he wants to have as much talent as he can possibly have.
Only one in four young men can get into the military, Dempsey said. The other three are disqualified for having medical issues, a criminal record or lack education, among other issues.
Lucy Daghir, 18, a freshman cadet from Maryland, said afterward that she thought it was great that women would have more leadership opportunities now that they are no longer banned from the front lines. But when it comes to the draft, Daghir said she thinks there would be "a pretty big uproar" if the system was changed.
"Until we actually need women to go into the draft," she said, "I feel like it would probably be best to not start that."
Dempsey also talked to the cadets about the unpredictable, complex, dangerous world they will encounter when they join the fleet. He said they will have to be deeply committed to being a professional, build relationships on trust, be more aware of themselves as leaders earlier, and continue to learn.
"Young leaders frankly have to be more ready than I was when I was a second lieutenant," he said.
He's confident they will be.
"I only make it through the day because I know there are young men and women like you here, and at West Point, Colorado Springs and Annapolis, who are willing to share the burden," he said, referring to the other service academies.
The Coast Guard Academy male singing group, the Idlers, sang for Dempsey, an avid vocalist. Dempsey joined in when they sang the "The Army Goes Rolling Along" and requested the Coast Guard's service song, "Semper Paratus." He won over the audience by giving them permission to sleep in the following day.
Sam Ruby, 21, a senior cadet from Minnesota and president of the Idlers, said it was a privilege to sing for Dempsey. Dempsey gave the cadets good advice, Ruby said, and "now it's time for us to step up and be leaders."
At Electric Boat, Dempsey toured the North Dakota, a Virginia-class submarine under construction and on track to be delivered faster than its predecessors. EB President Kevin J. Poitras said the visit reflected "the increasing importance of submarines to 21st century national security."
Dempsey and Poitras discussed how EB is making Virginia-class submarines more affordable and incorporating those cost-reduction ideas into the design of a ballistic-missile submarine, as well as how the shipyard will need enough repair and modernization work over the next couple of years to sustain its workforce.
"The chairman was very engaged with the shipbuilders he met," Poitras said, "and we greatly appreciate his interest in Electric Boat."