WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton is reserving judgment on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to lift a ban on women serving in combat.
In an interview Friday, the veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan remains concerned that women are not physically capable of performing certain "mission-essential" tasks required of front-line infantry soldiers or special forces.
"We would want to make sure the mission-essential tasks of those jobs can be performed," Cotton, R-Dardanelle, said on Friday.
Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed to revoke a 1994 military policy memo signed by Les Aspin, a defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, that excluded women from serving in units engaged in direct combat.
More than 230,000 battlefront posts will now be open to women unless the military service chiefs recommend they should be excluded from the more demanding and deadly positions.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing that he believes there are women who would meet the standards to serve in special operations units such as the Navy SEALS and Delta Force.
Cotton, a former Army infantry officer, said he has faith that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos will not allow any degradation of those units. He expects that men and women seeking to serve in those roles will be tested to ensure they can perform mission-essential tasks.
Cotton came under criticism earlier this month from liberals and feminists after saying on Laura Ingraham’s radio show that women were not physically capable of serving in the infantry.
"It’s nature, upper body strength, and physical movements, and speed, and endurance, and so forth," Cotton said.
Amanda Marcotte, a blogger on Slate who writes on feminism and politics, said his comments were an insult to the "hard work and skills of our female service members.’
Cotton acknowledged that his comments had drawn "a lot of commentary" but that he was not paying it much attention.
"I want to make sure our military — and specifically the infantry and special forces — can perform," he said.
Cotton, however, did offer that women are playing critical roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women, he said, accompanied his unit to interrogate or interview Muslim women they encountered on patrol.
"I had female soldiers in my Humvees routinely," Cotton said.