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Published: Sunday, 5/15/2005

Women in war zones

The rallying cry to "support our troops" that has swept the nation since the U.S. military went to war against Iraq is being boldly ignored by some top Republicans on Capitol Hill. In a last-minute move that was sprung on a House subcommittee without notice, an amendment was added to a defense bill that would not only hamstring Army operations but would ban women from combat support units.

The amendment was approved along party lines despite vehement objections from the Army and many female soldiers active and retired. But some Republicans who are determined to send the country back to the future believe the antiquated 1948 ban on women in combat needs to be expanded instead of eliminated.

The latter is strongly supported by those who see the prohibition as an outmoded vestige of a long gone era that doesn't apply in the brave new world of unconventional warfare. The old rules factored in wars with front lines and hand-to-hand combat.

Women had to be kept at a safe distance from harm's way to satisfy the paternalistic attitude of the time that the "weaker sex" wasn't physically or mentally equipped to handle such dangerous duty.

Fast forward more than a half century later to a military where women are filling many more roles than ever before, from piloting Apache gunships and flying bombing missions off aircraft carriers to serving on combat ships and in fighter planes.

In Iraq they are part of the battlefield even more than the first Gulf War. The downside is that dozens have died and more than a couple hundred have been wounded in action. Technically they are not assigned to combat positions, but many face combat dangers whenever they leave base camp.

One decorated captain in the Army airborne unit, who shot her way out of an Iraqi ambush in 2003, said "In Iraq, the front line is everywhere."

Since December, 2002, more than 60,000 women have been deployed overseas in support of the Iraq war, performing as bravely as their male peers.

The recent move by the House subcommittee to bar them from even combat support and combat service support units because of their gender is a slap in the face to every accomplishment and sacrifice endured.

"I think it will make most of the women in the Army hopping mad," said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning. Summarily rejecting talent and commitment will do that. The arbitrary limitations will put women at even more of a disadvantage in the military with blocked assignments and advancements.

But rolling back the hard-won gains of women in the armed forces matters not to those convinced that father knows best. Slipping patronizing language about women in combat zones into a defense bill the night before a subcommittee vote was done to squelch dissent, discussion, and debate.

Never mind the additional strain on the military if experienced women are removed from important positions. Army leaders who protested the proposed legislation say women working in a wide range of units are performing "magnificently" and serving where battlefields have no clear front lines.

They know the congressional vote against female soldiers will confuse those in the ranks and send the absolutely wrong signal to women in uniform.

When the full Armed Services committee meets soon to consider the bill setting Defense Department policy for 2006, the last-minute amendment creating further obstacles for military women must go.



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