CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Navy Secretary Ray Mabus had a simple message Tuesday for 1,500 Marines and sailors: The decision to let women compete for all military combat positions is as irreversible as earlier edicts to integrate blacks and allow gays and lesbians to openly serve.
It was Mabus' third visit to a major Marine Corps base to explain the issue to rank-and-file audiences since Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in December that all combat positions would be open to women.
Mabus repeatedly emphasized that standards won't be lowered.
"Marines, we're past the decision now. The secretary of defense has made the decision. Now we're into implementing," he said Tuesday at Camp Pendleton in California.
Marine Corps leaders had sought to keep certain infantry and combat jobs closed to women, citing studies showing combined-gender units are not as effective as male-only units. Carter, backed by Mabus, overruled them.
Since December, the military services have put together plans outlining how they will integrate women into male-only units.
Marines who sat cross-legged around Mabus on a large concrete surface used for ceremonies didn't object to the change when the secretary invited questions. Some who volunteered to speak with reporters said any resistance might come from older Marines.
"This generation, so much has been changing, whether it be with gays and lesbians and all that, everything's just changing," said Lance Cpl. Guillermo Arenas, 20, who joined the Marines in July. "We have a lot of older Marines that were in longer, so it might take them a little while to adapt to it, but then eventually they'll know that they're Marines."
Four of the seven questions that Mabus took were about women in combat. Others were more interested in his thoughts on Iraq and the future size of the Marine Corps.
One questioner asked for his thoughts on drafting women. He said he supports the idea but it's a decision for Congress. Another wanted to know how quickly women would be fully integrated into combat jobs.
"I think it won't happen all in one day," Mabus said. "It'll be relatively gradual but the decision's been made."
Gunnery Sgt. Janet Marrufo, 31, said Mabus' simple message was effective.
"It was important for Marines to hear out in the open, and let them know officially that it's a full change and that this is happening," said Marrufo, who has been a Marine for 12 years. "I think some Marines were unclear about that at first but he cleared the air."
Mabus, a former Democratic governor of Mississippi, has carried the same message to large audiences at Marine bases at Parris Island, South Carolina, and Quantico, Virginia, after Marine Corps leaders expressed reservations about the change.
Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, told senators in February that he worried about retention, injury rates and unit effectiveness.
"We have a decision and we're in the process of moving out," Neller told senators. "We will see where the chips fall. And, again, our hope is that everyone will be successful. But hope is not a course of action on the battlefield."
Neller told senators that Marine Corps testing revealed two significant differences between all-male units and those with men and women. He said all-male units were able to better march long distances carrying heavy loads and also were able to fire their weapons more accurately after marching over distance.
Being big and strong and having a "certain body mass give you an advantage," said Neller.
Mabus told the Marines Tuesday that fully integrating women was akin to the integration of blacks in the 1940s and the repeal of the 'don't-ask-don't-tell' policy against gays and lesbians openly serving.
"We are stronger because we have Marines of color," he said. "Same thing when 'don't-ask-don't-tell got repealed. We're stronger because we don't judge people by who they love but on whether they can do the job as Marines. A more diverse force is a stronger force."