WASHINGTON -- A high-level military advisory panel is set to recommend that the armed services overturn its policy barring women from serving in combat roles, a step that would remove a key structural barrier for women trying to advance their military careers.
Women currently make up 14.6 percent of the active-duty military. Since 2001, 137 female service members have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 1994, women have been barred from serving in units at the level of battalion and below that engage in direct ground combat.
A draft report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a group established by Congress in 2009, concludes that the current policy is outdated and discriminatory. Commissioners include 24 senior retired and active-duty members of the military, in addition to leaders in the business community and academia.
"The Commission recommends that DoD and Services remove a structural barrier for women," reads the report, which commissioners met to review Thursday and Friday. "The current DoD and Service policies barring women from direct ground combat career fields and assignments have been in place since the early 1990s. As previously described, these policies constitute a structural barrier that keeps women from entering the tactical career fields associated with promotion to flag/general officer grades and serving in career enhancing assignments. The Commission considered four strands of argument related to rescinding the policies."
In many ways reflecting the debate over allowing gay men and women to serve openly, the commission's draft language rejected the argument that integrating combat forces would hurt unit morale and cohesion, saying that experience does not bear out that claim:
First, the Commission addressed arguments related to readiness and mission capability. One frequently-cited argument in favor of the current policy is that having women serving in direct combat will hamper mission effectiveness by hurting unit morale and cohesion. Comparable arguments were made with respect to racial integration, but were ultimately never borne out. Similarly, to date, there has been little evidence that the integration of women into previously- closed units or occupations has had a negative impact on important mission-related performance factors, like unit cohesion. ...
Furthermore, a study by the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (2009) actually found that a majority of focus group participants felt that women serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a positive impact on mission accomplishment. Additionally, panel members on this topic at an MLDC meeting cited the need to bring to bear all talent: The blanket restriction for women limits the ability of commanders in theater to pick the most capable person for the job.
The National Organization for Women first passed a resolution supporting women acting in combat roles in 1990. "Women in the military are exposed to the same kind of dangers that combat service exposes a soldier to, but the difference is that the women are not getting combat pay, and they're not getting combat-related opportunities for promotion," NOW President Terry O'Neill said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "So it's only fair to recognize that women belong, as much as men do, in combat units."
Joe Davis, director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his organization has no resolution opposing or supporting the women in combat issue.
"The current DOD policy is to not assign women to combat units, yet irregular warfare, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, places those in combat support or combat-service support units in just as much risk as the infantry," Davis said. "Regardless of what the commission recommends, this issue will be an open debate for some time."
Marty Callaghan, the media director at the American Legion, said that while they have not yet taken a position on the draft report, last summer at its national convention, members passed a resolution saying the Legion would "initiate efforts to encourage the repeal of the Department of Defense's policy governing the assignment of women in combat situations."
The commission's report is expected out in March. "DOD will look at the recommendation and go from there," Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan said. "We'll see what the nature of the report is when it's done."
UPDATE: Women are currently allowed to serve in Army units supporting ground combat forces. Although their job is not technically to engage in combat, there is no real established front line and many of these individuals are exposed to combat.