Pentagon lifts ban on women in combat


Two days after US president Barack Obama called for equal rights for women in his second inaugural address, the Pentagon lifted its exclusion ban on women serving in ground combat roles.

The ground-breaking development formally opens up to women more than 230,000 jobs in front-line positions in the Army and the Marine Corps and possibly elite combat roles in units such as the Navy Seals after being shut out for generations.

Women account for about one in every six of the 1.4 million active military personnel in the US and more than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan and neighbouring countries supporting those wars. More than 152 women have been killed, of more than 6,600 US military who have died in these conflicts, and more than 850 wounded.

The policy has prohibited women from serving in 36 per cent of roles in the Marine Corps and 30 per cent in the Army.

The military has opposed formally appointing women to combat roles citing their strength and stamina to carry out certain tasks and cohesion and privacy in combat units when in fact women are regularly seconded to fighting units.

Members of Congress supported the move. Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, said that the change reflected “the reality of 21st century military operations.”

Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who will be the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate armed services panel, said he didn’t believe it would lead to a broad opening of combat roles to women because of practical barriers.

Women were prohibited from being assigned to ground combat units below the level of brigade, which comprises about 3,500 troops, under a 1994 Pentagon policy.

Temporary attachments

The practical demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, however, brought women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers, though they are not formally assigned but attached temporarily from other units.

“The fact is that women have had a combat role and that they have stepped up and done the job just as valiantly and as bravely as men,” said Anne Coughlin, a professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Coughlin took a legal action last year against US defence secretary Leon Panetta on behalf of two military servicewomen over being excluded from ground combat.

Army colonel Ellen Haring and army reserve soldier Jane Baldwin sued Mr Panetta last May, claiming that the Pentagon’s exclusion of women from most combat positions was unconstitutional.

They argued that the policy restricted women’s earnings, promotions and retirement benefits and asked for any decisions on assignment or training to be made in the future without regard to gender.

“It had become increasingly untenable to maintain a formal policy of keeping women out of these roles,” said Ms Coughlin, whose father emigrated to the US from Co Leitrim.

“The Pentagon was doing this in a very legalistic way. Women were fighting, being wounded and dying in combat so they couldn’t keep this policy in place,” she said.

Enormously detrimental

Ms Coughlin said the policy had “an enormously detrimental effect” on women in the military, excluding them from promotion opportunities. Even though they fought in combat on secondment, this wasn’t counted formally in promotions. The nature of warfare had also changed, making it impossible to keep women out of combat roles.

“Before there were forward and rear lines and women were kept in the support roles in the rear line; warfare is more circular now – it is everywhere in a conflict – and women have been thrust into combat,” said Ms Coughlin.

The military’s exclusion policy had been based on “an antiquated theory on how wars are fought and a very masculine idea of what a woman is,” she said.