Still Fighting for Women in Combat

The Department of Defense released a long-awaited report yesterday updating its controversial 1994 ban on women in combat. The DoD recommends that women be allowed to serve closer to the front lines in units that “co-locate” with ground combat forces. However, it still advises that women be barred from ground combat.

Unless Congress raises objections, the report’s recommendations will become policy after 30 Congressional working days.

For the women who make up about 14 percent of the U.S. armed forces, the new recommendations are double-edged. 14,000 new job opportunities will be open to women. But approximately another 236,000 are still closed, including positions in elite special forces such as the Navy SEALs and the Army Delta Force.

Critics of the 1994 ban note that it was designed for a different era of warfare. “The issue of women in battle is coming to a head now because there’s no demarcation between combat and non-combat in the Middle East today,” former House Armed Services Committee Member Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) told Ms. this fall. “As it stands, there no longer is an official front line.” Women serve in some of the most dangerous positions (for instance, as truck drivers, or in teams “attached” to combat units), yet don’t receive proper combat training or formal recognition.

Many believed the months-overdue report would spell the end of the combat ban, as two military advisory bodies in the past two years had urged. The new recommendations are receiving mixed reactions from advocacy groups. The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) calls them “a step in the right direction,” but calls the continuation of the ban “extremely disappointing.” Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN, says,

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 or future promotions and assignments that are primarily given to personnel from combat arms specialties.

A lack of combat experience can be a barrier to higher-ranking positions in the military, leaving capable women stuck under the so-called “brass ceiling.” Just this week, the Senate will be confirming the second-ever woman four-star general. “Two top generals in 200 years isn’t exactly a stellar track record for upward mobility,” says Bhagwati.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, says that lifting the ban would not only reflect the reality on the ground, but also benefit the military:

The remaining restrictions in DOD policy fail to recognize … that women have already been performing superbly in a broad range of vital combat roles. The Department of Defense should ensure the readiness of the force by establishing once and for all that when the best person for a job is a woman, her gender should not stand in the way.

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