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Pentagon rules shift on women in combat

By Lolita C. Baldor

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 06:35 a.m. HST, Feb 09, 2012

WASHINGTON >> Pentagon rules are catching up a bit with reality after a decade when women in the U.S. military have served, fought and died on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Thursday, the Pentagon is recommending to Congress that women be allowed to serve in more jobs closer to the front lines. The change would open up about 14,000 additional jobs to women.

According to defense officials, the new rules are expected to continue the long-held prohibition that prevents women from serving as infantry, armor and special operations forces. But they will formally allow women to serve in other jobs at the battalion level, which until now had been considered too close to combat.

In reality, however, the necessities of war have already propelled women to the front lines — often as medics, military police or intelligence officers. So, while a woman couldn't be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion or in a company going out on patrol, she could fly the helicopter supporting the unit, or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured.

The officials said the new rules will formally allow women to be assigned to a battalion and serve in jobs such as medics, intelligence officers, police or communications officers. The changes would have the greatest effect on the Army and Marine Corps, which ban women from more jobs than the Navy and Air Force do, largely because of the infantry positions.

Defense officials spoke about the report on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been publicly released.

Though numbers vary by service branch, women make up more than 14 percent of the nation's armed forces — that's 200,000 women in the active duty force of 1.43 million. There long has been opposition to putting them in combat, based on questions of whether women have the necessary strength and stamina, or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion. There also have been suggestions that the American public would not tolerate large numbers of women coming home from war in body bags.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battlefield lines are scattered and blurred, and insurgents can be around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat. Some 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars, roughly 12 percent of all those who have served there. Of the more than 6,300 who have been killed, 144 were women.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, speaking from his home in Virginia, said he doesn't see how the new policy helps the national security of the country.

"This does not dismiss the sexual tension issues, nor does it dismiss the differences physiologically between men and women in terms of cardiovascular fitness," Maginnis said.

The Service Women's Action Network's response was mixed.

"On the plus side, this is a huge step in the right direction," said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the network. However, she said it was "extremely disappointing" that the ban would continue on women becoming infantry.

"To continue such a ban is to ignore the talents and leadership that women bring to the military, and it further penalizes servicewomen by denying them the opportunity for future promotions and assignments that are primarily given to personnel from combat arms specialties."

"It's time military leadership establish the same level playing field to qualified women to enter the infantry, special forces and other all-male units," Bhagwati said.

The Pentagon report, which initially was due out last spring, comes nearly a year after an independent panel called for the military to lift its ban on women in combat. The Military Leadership Diversity Commission said the Pentagon should phase in additional career fields and units that women could be assigned to as long as they are qualified.

A 1994 combat exclusion policy bans women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops and is made up of battalions, which can be about 800 soldiers.

So while a woman serving as a communications or intelligence officer can be formally assigned to a brigade, she can't be assigned to the smaller battalion. The military has gotten around those rules by "attaching" women in those jobs to battalions, which meant they could do the work but not get the credit for being in combat arms.

And since service in combat gives troops an advantage for promotions and job opportunities, it has been more difficult for women to move to the higher ranks.

While the new rules won't open up the Navy SEALs or the Army Delta Force to women, some defense officials have said the military may eventually be open to that. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told North Carolina ROTC students in 2010 that at some point there would be careful steps in that direction.

Already, however, women are serving with special operations forces in support jobs such as intelligence analysts, legal specialists, builders and administration assistants.

In a new program gaining popularity in Afghanistan, women are serving on so-called cultural support teams that go out with commando units. The women on the teams are used to do things that would be awkward or impossible for their male teammates, such as talking to or frisking burqa-clad women.


Associated Press writers Mike Gracia and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.

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MANDA wrote:
There was a huge uproar over "don't ask" but no one outside really speaks up for the women deprived of their basic civil rights because of gender - note that prohibitions based on race are so long gone - and deprived of the pay and recognition they deserve. So wrong and so fundamentally ignored by our society. If it's done to women, it's "cultural," or there's some idiotic, faux-scientific basis, and everyone accepts it. If this article had said "African Americans are dying in service but the military won't let them be called front line," just imagine.
on February 9,2012 | 04:31AM
Manapua_Man wrote:
This is such a bad idea... I can't believe this is even be considered. Can you imagine what a public relations nightmare it would be if we hear stories of our women soldiers getting captured and manhandled by enemy forces? How would one feel if the terrorists show on live video, the torture and execution of an American female soldier? I'm not opposed to allowing a few exceptional women do dangerous jobs in the military, even combat if they can hack it. I just don't feel comfortable of that being the norm for all women soldiers though.
on February 9,2012 | 04:37AM
bender wrote:
All you have to do is think back to Jessica Lynch who was captured in Iraq. The other thing that went wrong is that the US military went to extraordinary lengths to recover her, way more than they would have done for a man. Can you imagine how many troops might be diverted from battle if there were widespread capture of women troops. And then you must consider the physical abilities of the women. I'm speaking in generalities here but for the most part, women troops simply don't have the physical strength for the type of duties that might be required closer to the fighting. I'd like to think that an artillery battery isn't slowed because a female ammo handler can't keep pace.
on February 9,2012 | 04:52AM
jrboi96786 wrote:
Bad idea. Women are the reason why the military are getting sensitive with every issue. I'm not saying that they can't do it but they do have different mentality than men. If they are to proceed with this decision... I hope the day they allowed the women in combat MOS, I am hoping that their Physical Test is exactly the same standard as men and all other criteria. Because I do believe in old saying, "you're are just as weak as your weakest link".
on February 9,2012 | 05:13AM
alohakims wrote:
Here is the key sentence from the article: "The military has gotten around those rules by "attaching" women in those jobs to battalions, which meant they could do the work but not get the credit for being in combat arms." In other words, women are already serving in combat positions, the military is just not calling it that so as not to break the rules. Give women equal pay and promotion for equal work. Anything less is umamerican.
on February 9,2012 | 06:16AM
alohakims wrote:
To read about heroic Americans who are serving in combat, and yes, they're women, read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/us/16women.html?pagewanted=all
on February 9,2012 | 06:26AM
alohakims wrote:
"In 2004 and 2005, Michael A. Baumann, now a retired lieutenant colonel, commanded 30 enlisted women and 6 female officers as part of a unit patrolling in the Rashid district of Baghdad, an extremely dangerous area at the time. On paper, he followed military policy. The women were technically assigned to a separate chemical company of the division. In reality, they were core members of his field artillery battalion. Mr. Baumann said the women trained and fought alongside his male soldiers. Everyone from Mr. Baumann’s commanders to the commanding general knew their true function, he said. “We had to take everybody,” said Mr. Baumann, 46, who wrote a book about his time in Iraq called “Adjust Fire: Transforming to Win in Iraq.” “Nobody could be spared to do something like support.” Brought up as an old-school Army warrior, Mr. Baumann said he had seriously doubted that women could physically handle infantry duties, citing the weight of the armor and the gear, the heat of Baghdad and the harshness of combat. “I found out differently,” said Mr. Baumann, now chief financial officer for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “Not only could they handle it, but in the same way as males. I would go out on patrols every single day with my battalion. I was with them. I was next to them. I saw with my own eyes. I had full trust and confidence in their abilities.”" From "G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier," NY Times, August 15, 2009. Author is Lizette Alvarez. From "G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier" by Lizette Alvarez. NY Times, August 15, 2009.
on February 9,2012 | 06:47AM
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