U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson

(WOMENSENEWS)–A federal advisory group that has quietly championed military women for the past half century may be in danger of being undermined or even eliminated by conservatives influential in the Bush administration.

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services is one of 35 advisory groups in the Pentagon undergoing a review ordered in October by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The committee’s 40 volunteer-civilian women and men make recommendations on the role of women in the services and on quality-of-life issues affecting military women. With the aim of fostering improvements in nutrition, birth-control options and health care, the committee often exerts its influence via quiet diplomacy with the chain of command.

Now the committee’s supporters–including past members and retired and active-duty military women–worry that because the organization became controversial when it urged that several job categories be opened to women in 2000, the review will stretch past the Feb. 28 charter-renewal deadline. If the review is not completed by Feb. 28, the charter will not automatically continue and the committee will go into an inactive status unless it is renewed by Rumsfeld.

Committee supporters note several worrisome signs: When the Defense Advisory Committee’s chair stepped down at her term’s end in December, Rumsfeld named only an interim chair. The committee’s annual fall conference was canceled, and the spring conference was never planned.

The Defense Advisory Committee’s controversial recommendations are: that women be assigned to submarines; to the crews of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, the large, tracked vehicles that launch rockets from the rear of combat areas; and to the helicopter crews of Special Operations units, such as the Army Rangers. Critics say admitting women to these positions just barely skirt the Defense Department’s prohibition against women in direct ground combat.

The Defense Department has not enacted any of those recommendations, but the committee’s position on them triggered a storm of outrage among conservative critics, who say that women lack the physical strength, endurance and emotional reactions to survive combat and safeguard other soldiers.

“Cloak of Silence” Shrouds Committee’s Work

In response, committee supporters have launched an unprecedented campaign to keep the Defense Advisory Group active and intact, while at the same retaining the advances in assignments and training for military women which the committee has endorsed–especially those gained since 1994, when military pilot positions opened up to women. Five past chairs of the committee–all women–recently put their concerns into a letter to Rumsfeld, an unusual step as the committee has a longstanding policy to avoid political debate on its merits. “We asked the secretary to publicize his support for women in the services and put a stop to any changes that would undermine their advances in assignment and training,” said Holly Hemphill, a Washington attorney and 1996 chair of the Defense Advisory Committee. “We thought that we should be as straightforward as we could be and respectfully asked the secretary for his personal attention to these matters.”

Their efforts have garnered the support of U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, a Republican House Armed Services Committee member and the first woman veteran in Congress. She has requested a meeting with Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, to discuss her support for the Defense Advisory Committee, arguing that the group is “invaluable for heading off problems and identifying issues.”

“One of the difficulties is that the supporters of DACOWITS are people who are not used to participation in the political process, so the critics have had an unopposed run,” Wilson said, using the common acronym for the committee. “Their charter should be renewed, and someone in the Defense Department does not want to renew it. It’s a terrible mistake.”

Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Evelyn “Pat” Foote, whose last post was as commander of Fort Belvoir in Virginia, is concerned about what the review means for the committee.

“There has been such a cloak of silence spread over the Defense Advisory Committee that we really don’t know what to believe anymore,” said Foote, now president of the Alliance for National Defense, another organization that speaks for military women. “I worry that they will not be budgeted and that will effectively kill the office structure and support.”

Women Among Group’s Harshest Critics

Staff at the committee office in the Pentagon referred questions to the agency’s press office. A Defense Department spokesman, who declined to be identified, denied that the review will undermine the committee. Rumsfeld is taking a broad look at all 35 discretionary committees, the spokesman said.

“Some people may have been concerned that this was an effort to target DACOWITS specifically, but that is not the case,” the spokesman added.

Susan Patane, Second Vice Chair of the committee, said she expects the review to finish by March 1. The Defense Department spokesman, however, said that he doesn’t know when it will be completed.

Chief among the group’s critics is Elaine Donnelly, who served on the committee during the Reagan administration. Now president of the Center for Military Readiness, a policy group on military personnel issues, Donnelly castigated the Defense Advisory Committee and its “politically correct military” during a January news conference in Arlington, Va., along with representatives of other conservative women’s groups.

Donnelly declined comment for this story, saying her comments in January reflected her position.

“During the Clinton years, defense dollars were squandered on ‘politically correct’ social engineering projects that eroded morale and readiness in the military,” she said last month. “The driving force behind such demands is the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a tax-funded feminist power base . . . Discontinuing the DACOWITS, and the foolish policies it promotes, would send a message of support for dedicated military women who understand the realities of war.”

Donnelly was joined at the news conference by Charmaine Yoest of the national advisory board for the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think tank. Yoest and her husband recently called for the elimination of the Defense Advisory Committee in an article in the quarterly journal of the Independent Women’s Forum.

“In today’s military, as a result partly of lobbying by groups like DACOWITS, we have two different standards,” Yoest said in an interview. “What we really want to emphasize is that this is combat; it’s not your ordinary, garden-variety workplace.”

Patane, the interim chair, is trying to maintain calm amid the attacks.

“I don’t think I need to respond,” she said. “I think our credibility speaks for itself.”

But others say they cannot afford silence.

“If the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services is to go away, the only reason it should go away is because the Department of Defense is doing everything right and women have an even playing field,” said Foote, the retired brigadier general. “To bring it down for political reasons is disgraceful.”

Darryl McGrath is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., who writes often about politics and women’s issues.

For more information:

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services:

The Center for Military Readiness:

Military Women Veterans: