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Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter dies at age 68

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ash Carter, who served as defense secretary under the Obama administration, has died. He had a heart attack and was 68 years old. Carter was a physicist and weapons expert, and he oversaw the initial U.S. strikes against the Islamic State. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, Carter will best be known for opening up ground combat jobs to women.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Seven years ago, Carter went to the Pentagon briefing room and announced that women would no longer be barred from ground combat jobs - infantry, armor and artillery.

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ASH CARTER: As long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before.

BOWMAN: The move was opposed among some in the military, particularly the Marine Corps. The Marines conducted a yearlong study that found gender integrated units were slower, less lethal and more prone to injury than all-male units. Marine officers also said accepting women would lead to greater risk, meaning more combat casualties. But Carter saw it differently and indicated the Marine study failed to focus on individual achievement. And those advocating women in ground combat roles said the study did not pinpoint high-achieving women.

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CARTER: Teams do matter, and we need to take that into account. And at the same time, the capabilities of the individual to contribute are extremely important.

BOWMAN: Today, a small number of women are part of both Marine and Army infantry units. And more than 100 have passed the grueling Army Ranger training. Carter served earlier as a top Pentagon weapons buyer, and later as defense secretary focused on research and development, reaching out to Silicon Valley and saying the Pentagon was not spending enough on innovation. He created a defense innovation unit that he said would put new technologies in the hands of warfighters. His family said in a statement that though Carter was known for his keen sense of military technology, nuclear weapons and international affairs, he loved nothing more than visiting troops, making frequent trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.