Heather Wilson

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–As the nation’s marching bands have been tuning up for Memorial Day parades, Congress has been busy bringing a long simmering debate to a boil: What women can and can’t do on the battlefield.

The role of women in combat has stirred up political heat over the past two years as Army women, officially banned from direct ground combat, have wound up dying on the frontlines of modern warfare.

As of May 7, 41 women had been killed fighting the Bush administration’s “war on terror;” 35 in Iraq and six in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. Women injured in the conflicts numbered 281–279 in Iraq and three in Afghanistan.

The debate over women in combat came to a legislative pause last week, when the House–after an 11th-hour deal between Republicans in Congress and the Pentagon–adopted a compromise provision to defense-funding legislation, which now awaits action in the Senate.

The provision, passed Wednesday, requires the military to double the amount of advance notice it gives to Congress–60 working days instead of 30–before making any changes to its existing policy on women in combat or opening or closing any jobs to women.

The provision also requires the Department of Defense to investigate whether the military is violating its policy banning women from serving in “units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”

Congressional Republicans have cited military and media reports suggesting a violation of the policy.

Harald Stavenas, spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, specifically referred to a photograph in the Washington Post earlier this month that showed a woman in a Stryker combat vehicle. “They’re not Jeeps,” he said. “Those are meant to go in and attack enemy positions.”

The report, which would be due on March 31, 2006, would likely renew the fight over women in war, fought by several camps on several fronts.

Conservatives Want More Oversight

Conservative Republicans want more oversight over the roles of women at a time when the nature of warfare is changing. The Army, which is trying to reorganize itself into a more efficient service, wants more flexibility over personnel assignments. Women’s rights advocates, along with allies in the Democratic Party, want equality for military women.

Rep. Thelma Drake, a Virginia Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee, praised the compromise because it enhances congressional oversight of the military’s personnel decisions, a right granted to the legislative branch under the Constitution.

“The 30 legislative-day notice truly does not give Congress the time to act if we disagree with what the military is doing,” Drake said. “This compromise position allows Congress to have the time to act.”

Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican from New Mexico who served in the Air Force from 1978 to 1989, is the only female military veteran in Congress. Walking a fine line between the warring camps, she hailed the compromise, but largely for what it wouldn’t do: codify into law the current policy banning women from serving in direct ground combat positions, as was suggested in earlier versions of the measure.

“There has never been a law limiting the assignment of women in the Army, and the proposal to do so was unnecessary and unhelpful,” Wilson said in a statement. “Now, it’s gone.”

Gandy Sees ‘Tremendous Improvement’

The legislation approved by the House last week is a “tremendous improvement” over earlier proposals, said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C.

But Gandy and other women’s rights activists say the legislation is far from ideal.

“It still does not bring women in as equal partners,” said Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., the first woman on the House Armed Services Committee, who served there from 1973 to 1996. The provision, she said, continues to marginalize military women by making their status appear uncertain.

“As long as they keep saying to the women, ‘Maybe next were going to change the rules and throw you out,’ well, that’s bad,” Schroeder said.

Toying with female soldiers is not a smart strategy, especially at a time when the military has seen significant recruiting shortfalls, Schroeder added. Girls and women considering careers in the military, she said, may now decide otherwise in light of this debate.

“The Army cannot field an army without the women,” said Retired Lt. Gen. Claudia J. Kennedy, the highest-ranking woman to ever serve in the Army. Kennedy noted that women now hold roughly one quarter of combat service support positions.

Schroeder and others said that denying women direct ground combat experience is unjust because it prevents them from gaining the kind of experience often needed to rise through the ranks.

Moreover, the policy doesn’t make sense in a conflict such as Iraq, where there are no obvious frontlines, they added. In this type of conflict, women can wind up in combat even if they don’t serve in direct ground combat positions. Even so, women in these situations have proven they are capable of serving in combat, they said.

“There are so many other avenues or arenas where women are in danger,” said retired Air Force Captain Barbara Wilson. “But because the women put on a uniform and go to places that are hotspots, why does this make them some separate entity?”

Some Oppose Combat Role for Women

Social conservatives, however, argue that women in or alongside direct ground combat weaken the military because they do not have the physical strength needed for optimal performance. They jeopardize the lives of male soldiers and ultimately put the country at greater risk, they say. The country, they add, can’t stomach female casualties.

“Women are not suitable for military combat,” said Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum, a socially conservative organization in St. Louis. “If anyone thought women could participate in combat they would have done it before now.”

A scuttled version of the measure, approved May 11 by a House subcommittee, would have banned women in the Army from serving in companies that support combat units. The move prompted angry outcries from Democrats, women’s rights advocates, and senior members of the military, who argued that the policy would cause unnecessary confusion and would close roughly 22,000 jobs to women.

The Congressional Republicans who favored the measure said it was necessary to prevent the Army from violating existing policy on women in combat as it carries out an effort to reorganize itself into a more efficient, flexible service.

As part of this campaign, Army officials have mixed some combat units with “forward support” companies, some of which employ women to serve in the areas of medicine, maintenance, transportation and supply. Consequently, some women follow into battle the same units they are banned from joining, which critics say is a possible violation of current policy.

Army spokesperson Elizabeth Robbins responded that the service “remains in strict and full compliance” with existing personnel policies and said the Army’s transformation has not significantly changed the risk or role of female soldiers.

“Women soldiers,” she said, “are performing magnificently in all formations in which they are permitted to serve.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Record Number of Female Soldiers Fall:

Female Troops in Iraq Redefine Combat Rules: