Panel Wants Women in Combat Arms

Post date: Mar 11, 2011 11:06:20 PM

March 08, 2011|by Bryant Jordan

A Pentagon commission is recommending that ground combat units be open to female troops, arguing women are already engaged in combat and that keeping them out of operational career fields puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion.

The recommendation by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission has been expected since early January, when a draft version of the report was released. Opening combat arms to women was only one of 20 recommendations made by the commission. The report also presses for a military force that more closely reflects the country's demographics.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, whose forces would see the most dramatic changes with women moving into combat jobs, did not comment on the recommendations.

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles, who chaired the commission, said the women they interviewed -- all ranks from all branches -- were neither gung ho nor shy about the possibility of serving in combat units.

"I didn't hear, 'Rah, rah, we want to be in combat,' " Lyles said, "but I also didn't hear, 'We don't want to be in combat.'

"What they want is an equal opportunity to serve where their skills allow them to serve," he said in a DoD release. "Removing the barriers for that, and removing the barriers to them getting credit for that, was our No. 1 focus."

The commission is recommending that the Pentagon implement new policies that assign women based on their qualifications to tactical units below the brigade level.

"The commission is not advocating lowering of standards with the elimination of the combat exclusion policy," the final report states. "Qualification standards for combat arms positions should remain in place."

The Pentagon instituted the so-called "combat exclusion policy" in 1994 that barred women from engaging "an enemy on the ground with weapons … [or] have a high probability of direct physical contact with the personnel of a hostile force." The rule has had the effect of keeping females out of infantry, artillery and armored units since then.

The commission found that the combat exclusion policies are most restrictive in the Army and Marine Corps, for which ground combat is the principal role. Based on 2003 data, the exclusion policies keep women out of 9 percent of Army occupations and 8 percent of Marine Corps occupations, compared to just 1 percent of Air Force jobs. While the '03 figures have 6 percent of Navy career fields closed to women, the commission speculates that has changed, since the Navy opened submarine service to women early last year.

The importance of combat arms occupations in career advancement is reflected in the 2006 stats the commission referenced. While infantry, armor, artillery, cavalry and Special Forces make up just 7.7 percent of all Army career fields, 80 percent of Army general officers came from those occupations, according to the commission.

Women represent about 15 percent of active-duty servicemembers and about 18 percent of reserve forces, according to the Pentagon. They also account already for about 10 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, and 10 percent of all U.S. forces serving in the combat theater.

In a statement, Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said officials "will thoroughly evaluate" the commission's recommendations as part of an ongoing review of diversity policies.

Even without the combat military occupational specialties such as infantry and artillery, women have been in kinetic situations from the earliest days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From truck drivers and supply specialists to military police and security forces, female troops have directly engaged the enemy.

In 2005, Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman since World War II to earn a Silver Star. On duty in Iraq from the 617th Military Police Company of the Kentucky National Guard, she and her fellow Soldiers engaged the enemy during a convoy ambush March 2005. The MP squad flanked the insurgents to cut off their escape route, and Hester led her team through the fire and attacked the enemy trench line with rifles and M203 grenades. Before it was over, 27 insurgents were dead and six wounded.

"It really doesn't have anything to do with being a female," she said in June 2005, when the medal was pinned on her. "It's about the duties I performed that day as a Soldier."