Here is the Virginia Military Institute male cadet’s question on women in combat infantry units and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' full response that he provided during a Sept. 25 speech there:

“Sir ... first off I’d just like to say, pardon my language, but there are a lot of bad-ass women here, some physically fit than I am, some smarter than I am, but I remember I was doing some research on the Marine Corps’ experiment if female in combat arms makes us more combat effective, and I would just like to hear your thoughts on that.”

Mattis response:

“It’s a very, very tough issue. Because it goes from some people’s perspective of what kind of society do we want. You know, in the event of trouble ... you’re sleeping at night, in your family home, you’re the dad, mom, whatever, and you hear glass break downstairs. Who grabs the baseball bat and gets between the kids’ door and whoever broke in? And who reached for the phone to call 9-11. In other words, it goes to the almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable.

"This is an issue right now that we have Army, Navy, Marines ― all looking at as we speak. And that is the close-quarters fight being what it is, you know, is it a strength or a weakness to have women in that circumstance?

"Right now, what my job is, is to make certain that the chief of staff of the Army, or commandant of the Marine Corps, chief of naval operations bring problems to me, chief of staff of the Air Force, then I help them solve them. To date, because so few women have signed up along these lines, we don’t even have data at this time that I can answer your question. OK? You make a very valid question, I might add, because I was never under any illusions of what level of respect my Marines would have for me if I couldn’t run with the fastest of them and look like it didn’t bother me; if I couldn’t do as many pullups as the strongest of them. It was the unfairness of the infantry.

"How did the infantry get its name? Infant soldier. Young soldier. Very young soldier. They’re cocky, they’re rambunctious. They’re necessarily macho. And it’s the most primitive, I would say even evil, environment — you can’t even explain it.

"Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Civil War veteran as you know, who became one of our most noted, articulate Supreme Court associate justices, talking to veterans themselves decades after the war. He looked at them, and here’s the most articulate justice you could come up with, and he said: 'We have shared the incommunicable experience of war.’ And he meant close combat.

"This is an area we are going to have to resolve as a nation. 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, and I’ve got this being looked at right now by the chief of staff of the Army, commandant of the Marine Corps ... this is a policy that I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small we have no data on it.

"We’re hoping to get data soon. There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few. I mean ... right now it’s not even dozens. It’s that few. So when we get a little more data, I’ll give you a much more objective answer. Clearly the jury is out on it. But what we are trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed, if it can. The other nations that have had this for 20 years still have too few women in the infantry ranks to even draw a conclusion. So I can’t give you a good answer right now. I’m open to it, and I’ll be working with the chief of staff of the Army and the others to sort it out.”

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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