A high-level military commission is set to recommend that the Pentagon reverse its long-standing policy that bars women from being in combat.
Hundreds of thousands of women are currently serving in the U.S. military, and many of them are in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon's policy, women are, and always have been, barred from taking part in any ground combat operations.
But in reality, women are already in the thick of the fight — and an upcoming report will recommend that the Pentagon acknowledge the reality on the ground and allow women to be assigned to combat units.
The Military Leadership Diversity Commission was established by Congress in 2009 to look at ways to diversify the force and boost recruiting. The commission includes high-ranking retired and active-duty military officers who, for the past year, have been debating whether to overturn the current combat exclusion policy. This policy bans women from being assigned to artillery, infantry and other combat units; it says women can be attached to these units in support roles but that they are not explicitly allowed to be part of combat groups.
The commission examined several key questions; chief among them is the issue of promotion. The quickest, most direct way to rise through the ranks in the military is to succeed in a combat-related assignment. Because women can't get those jobs, the commission concluded that the policy ends up limiting their promotion opportunities.
Those who support changing the policy also point to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it can be difficult to distinguish between combat and noncombat positions. In a meeting last September, commission members questioned a panel of military women about their experiences.
"Here is my problem," said Ret. Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen. "We're talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what's on your back, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you have seen how infantrymen, the ground troopers, live, and how many of you would volunteer to live like that?"
Tammy Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs in Iraq and is now the second in charge at the Department of Veterans Affairs, replied.
"I've lived like that. I have lived out there. ... I would do it in a minute for the honor of being able to serve next to some of the greatest folks that I've ever been able to serve next to," she said. "It's about the job. Women are doing that right now."
But there are other concerns with lifting the ban on women serving in combat, including recruitment. Some say changing the policy will deter women from signing up to serve, while others say it will boost recruitment numbers at a time when the military is stretched thin between two wars.
There are also questions about retention. If the Pentagon opens combat jobs up to women, how long will they stay in them? What if they get pregnant and can't deploy? And there are the perennial concerns about unit cohesion. Will allowing women into intense fighting situations undermine the morale of all-male combat units?
A similar argument was made in the debate over whether to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the 17-year-old policy banning gays from serving openly in the military. Those who want to overturn the combat exclusion policy say now that the Pentagon has determined that letting gays and lesbians serve openly will not damage unit cohesion; trying to make the same argument about women doesn't hold water.
In its draft report, the commission has concluded that the Department of Defense should eliminate the combat exclusion policy for women in order "to create a level playing field for all qualified service members." Commission members and staff say that recommendation will remain in the final draft, which is expected to be handed over to Congress and the White House by mid-March.