Battleland

Women Not-Quite-In Combat

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Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Navy corpsman Shannon Crowley walks the point with a U.S. Marine unit in Afghanistan in 2010

The Pentagon made official what already has been happening by default: women in uniform are moving closer to the front lines. “Women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement heralding the change, which was detailed at a briefing Thursday. “We will continue to open as many positions as possible to women so that anyone qualified to serve can have the opportunity to do so.”

But the move still bans them from key infantry, armor and special operations units, leaving many advocates unimpressed.

Responding to an order from Congress, the Pentagon said it was tweaking the 1994 rules on the issue:

– Women will no longer be barred from jobs simply because those jobs require those holding them to be located with ground-combat units. That means women will be able to serve as tank mechanics, radio operators and in other support billets, opening up more than 13,000 jobs to women.

– Women will be permitted to serve in 800-troop combat battalions, a smaller unit – closer to the front — than the higher-level 4,000-strong brigades where they had been limited to serving in support roles further from the action. More than a thousand jobs will be open to women under this change, although many already have been serving in those jobs as temporary “attachments.”

“This is a lot of semantics,” says Nate Rawlings, an Army infantry vet and Battleland contributor.  After the Army restructured in 2005, he says, “on paper, I guess, the females were still held at the brigade level, but we had about 70-odd women who were just as much a part of that infantry battalion as I was.”

But support for the incremental change is hardly unanimous. “If a soldier is wounded in battle–what we saw many times in Baghdad in 2003 or Fallujah in November 2004–a co-located support soldier may be the only person in a position to evacuate the wounded soldier on his own back,” says Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent group opposed to women serving in combat. “In this environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive. Lives should not be put at needless risk just to satisfy ‘diversity metrics’ for the career ambitions of a few.”

Women remain barred from about 238,000 slots, including the key combat assignments that are the ticket to promotion and the most senior ranks. Some military women don’t think the Defense Department is moving fast enough. “Even though this does not completely change the women-in-combat rules, at least the Pentagon finally recognizes, after 10 years, that women have been exposed to combat, have been in combat, have performed in combat, have been injured and lost their lives in combat,” says Battleland contributor Darlene Iskra, the first woman to command a Navy ship. “The Pentagon is only opening jobs that women have been de-facto-doing but not being credited for.”

Elspeth “Cam” Ritchie, who retired as an Army colonel and medical officer two years ago, says the military needs to examine other policies if it truly wants to integrate women into the ranks. “To achieve the highest ranks, it is almost mandatory to move every two to three years,” says Ritchie, also a Battlelander. “Does frequent moving actually make you a better soldier? Those policies should be re-examined.”

The revised rules will take effect once Congress has been in session for the legally-required 30 continuous days, expected to happen sometime this spring. There have been more than 1,000 female U.S. troops casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, including 144 killed in action. They have represent more than 10% of the 2.4 million troops sent to war since 9/11, and make up about 15% of today’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel.

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