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Pentagon to ease restrictions on women in combat

Proposed Pentagon rules would allow women in the military to serve in non-infantry jobs on the front lines.

February 09, 2012|By David S. CloudWashington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Pentagon plans to ease restrictions on women serving in combat, which will open 14,000 new and potentially more dangerous jobs to female troops, mostly in the Army and Marine Corps.

The change, which is scheduled to be announced Thursday, would continue to bar women from serving directly in frontline infantry, armor and special operations forces, according to two senior defense officials.

But the proposed regulations, expected to take effect this summer, would allow women to serve in non-infantry battalion jobs, such as radio operators, intelligence analysts, medics, radar operators and tank mechanics. They could be placed together with combat forces, such as supply convoys in areas of fighting.

The move, which Congress may review, comes after a decade in which women serving as medics, intelligence officers and other noncombat jobs frequently found themselves caught in ambushes or other ground attacks because of the uncertain front lines and unconventional nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than 140 women in the U.S. military have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 860 have been wounded, according to Defense Department statistics. In all, 14.5% of the nation's 1.5 million active-duty military personnel are women.

The Obama administration recently lifted the long-standing prohibition on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces. Expanding opportunities for women in the military is less controversial and is unlikely to become a political issue in an election year.

The recommendations are part of a Pentagon study Congress ordered on women in combat. In theory, Congress could move to block the new rules, but that is not considered likely, the officials said.

"We have been fighting in a complex combat environment and this study recognizes that," a senior official said.

Both officials emphasized that remaining restrictions on women serving in infantry jobs were likely to be reexamined in coming years, although permitting women into all-male combat units was likely to face opposition within the Army and Marines.

"This is the opening salvo in the debate over assigning women to combat," said one U.S. officer. "That's the last bastion."

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the new rules have not been made public.

Current regulations restrict women from serving in a battalion or smaller unit if ground combat is the unit's primary mission. It also bars them from units located near troops assigned to combat. A battalion has 700 to 900 troops.

In practice, women frequently were exposed to attacks while providing medical aid, flying helicopters or serving in other support functions.

Congress lifted the ban on women flying combat aircraft and serving on combat ships in the early 1990s, and women face far fewer job restrictions in the Navy and Air Force.

Many female soldiers already in effect serve in units that support frontline troops, but instead of being formally assigned to a battalion, they are "attached" to the unit. That puts them close to combat but denies them the career advancement that male soldiers in combat receive.

That has made it harder for women to rise to higher ranks, especially in the Army and Marines. Many women resent the restrictions, contending that the rules are outdated and contradict the military's performance-based culture.

The Pentagon report, which was initially due last spring, is being released nearly a year after a government panel called for lifting the ban on women in combat. The Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended that the Defense Department phase in women for jobs they are now denied as long as they are qualified.

Women have served in the military since the Revolutionary War, but it wasn't until World War I that the first was formally allowed to enlist, and not until World War II that women were allowed to serve in large numbers.

Female pilots have served in the military since 1974 in the Navy and Army, and in the Air Force since 1976. Two years ago, the Navy lifted restrictions that prevented women from serving on submarines.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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