At a Senate committee hearing on Feb. 2, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked top military leaders if women should have to sign up for the selective service now that combat jobs are opening up to them. This is what they said. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The top officers in the Army and Marine Corps testified on Tuesday that they believe it is time for women to register for future military drafts, following the Pentagon’s recent decision to open all jobs in combat units to female service members.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, and Gen. Robert B. Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, both said they were in favor of the change during an occasionally contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the full integration of women in the military. The generals, both infantry officers, offered their opinions in response to a question from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who said that she also is in favor of the change.

“Senator, I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft,” said Milley, echoing the remarks of Neller.

After the hearing, Neller added in an short interview that any young American as a rite of passage should have to register for Selective Service.

“Now that the restrictions that exempted women from [combat jobs] don’t exist, then you’re a citizen of a United States,” Neller said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to serve, but you go register.”

The comments are a first in the Defense Department. Previously, senior defense officials have said only that the issue would need to be researched following Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s historic decision in December to open all jobs in the military to women without exception.

Carter’s action allows women for the first time to apply for a variety of physically punishing positions, including Army and Marine Corps infantryman, as well as Special Operations jobs, including Navy SEAL and Green Beret. The Defense Department plans to begin implementing associated changes in training and evaluation by April 1.


Sgt. Emma A. Bringas and Lance Cpl. Terrence A. Lay, fire a  should-fired assault weapon during training at Twentynine Palms, Calif., last year. (Photo by Sgt. Alicia R. Leaders/ Marine Corps)

The Selective Service System has existed for decades, and was created to make sure the military has enough manpower when it is short-handed in a time of war. A variation of it was first adopted in 1917, as the United States prepared to enter World War I.

But Selective Service laws have never required women to subject themselves to the draft and face the prospect of being forced into military service. The current version of the Military Selective Service Act requires that virtually all men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 26 register, most within 30 days of turning 18. That includes non-U.S. citizens living in the United States, such as refugees.

The generals appeared alongside Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy. Mabus and Neller faced a variety of pointed questions from senators, in light of a public rift that emerged last year in which the Marine Corps lobbied against integrating all jobs, and Mabus and Carter decided to anyway.

Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), the Armed Services Committee chairman, questioned Mabus why he publicly discounted more than 1,000 pages of research the Marine Corps had compiled backing their position before reading it. He also asked Mabus whether he had visited the Marine task force that carried out the research, and the secretary said he had not.

“So you, with a straight face, make claims that the Marines’ study was flawed and biased, even if you did not even go see the study being performed?” McCain said.

Mabus did not respond then, but said at another point in the hearing that it was “clear that the conclusions focused on the average performance of female Marines rather than on individual abilities.

“Averages don’t tell the abilities and performance of an individual Marine,” he said. “There were and are capable women who can meet the arduous standards the Marine Corps set for ground combat arms units and we all know that Marines have never been about average.”

In a brief interview afterward, Mabus said that he had no regrets about how he has handled the issue. He said he has been “misinterpreted” when it was suggested that he degraded the Marines who took part in the service’s gender integration research. He noted that he had approved the unit for a Meritorious Unit Citation award for its work.

“I not only signed it,” the secretary said, “I instigated it.”