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Panel: Let women serve in combat roles

Dec. 7, 2010 - 11:50PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 7, 2010 - 11:50PM  |  
Many of the longstanding reasons for keeping women out of combat units do not hold up under scrutiny, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission's research found. Here Army ROTC Cadets assist each other in a Combat Water Survival Training obstacle.
Many of the longstanding reasons for keeping women out of combat units do not hold up under scrutiny, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission's research found. Here Army ROTC Cadets assist each other in a Combat Water Survival Training obstacle. (Army)
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An HH-60G Pave Hawk hovers over pararescuemen and Brig. Gen. Jack L. Briggs, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, during a training mission at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Pararescue is one of the Air Force career fields that are not open to women. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Boltz / Air Force)

The Defense Department should eliminate restrictions on women serving in combat units and end all "gender restrictive policies," according to a blue-ribbon panel created by Congress.

The move would end the military's long tradition of all-male combat units and open up career fields like infantry and armor to "qualified women."

The recommendation by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission will be included in a formal report to Congress and the White House in March.

The commission met and discussed the combat exclusion policy for females at a meeting Dec. 3, said Erica Lewis, a commission spokeswoman.

Many of the longstanding reasons for keeping women out of combat units do not hold up under scrutiny, the commission's research found.

A five-page analysis prepared for the commission concluded that women do not lack the physical ability to perform combat roles; gender integration will not negatively affect unit cohesion; and women are not more likely than men to develop mental health problems.

However, keeping women out of combat units and combat-related job fields can reduce their career opportunities, particularly in the officer corps and in the Army and Marine Corps, according to the commission's research.

The recommendation could push the combat exclusion policy for women into the mainstream political debate, similar to the ban on gays serving openly that was the subject of congressional hearings in early December.

The recommendation will be one of many from the commission aimed at improving diversity in the military and opportunities for women and minorities. The panel's work could result in changes in law, a directive from the White House or policy changes within the Pentagon.

The commission suggested a phased approach to allowing women into combat units, Lewis said.

For example, the services might start by assigning women in career fields currently open to them to combat units traditionally limited to men. A second phase could involve opening additional career fields involved in "direct ground combat" to qualified women.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown current policies and their references to "forward" units to be outdated. In some situations, women in non-combat jobs have faced more danger than male infantrymen.

"The enemy is no longer clearly and consistently identifiable, and all units are essentially exposed to hostile fire," the commission's research paper concluded.

"Additionally, the spatial concepts of forward and well-forward are inappropriate and lacking to convey the complexity of operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan."

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