Women are playing an increasing role in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The current Pentagon policy governing women in combat dates back to 1994. Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin wrote that "women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground."
Over the summer, current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reported to Congress that the armed forces are in compliance with the policy.
In a weeklong series on the role women are playing in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we hear two opposing views about that policy.
Opponent: 'We're Talking About Life and Death'
Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative think tank Center for Military Readiness, is a staunch opponent of women in combat. In the 1990s, as a member of a commission on women in the military under President George H.W. Bush, she fought against allowing women to fly combat aircraft. And now, she believes the rules pertaining to ground combat are not being followed.
"[The rules] are being circumvented; they're being deliberately broken; they're being redefined, without authorization by the secretary of defense and without the required notice to Congress," she says.
Donnelly says the Army is ordering women to serve in support units that co-locate — or embed — with all-male infantry units. As a result, she says, everyone on the battlefield is exposed to greater risk.
As an example, she describes a scenario in which an infantry soldier is wounded on the battlefield and needs to be carried to safety. She says that if the closest soldier is a female support soldier, "no matter how brave or courageous she is, no matter how hard she tries, she would not be able to evacuate that soldier on her back," Donnelly says.
"There is no excuse for anybody's son, an infantryman, to lose his life because the co-located soldier nearby was a female soldier, rather than a male soldier, as required by regulation. This is not a matter that can be taken lightly. We're talking about life and death here," she says.
Report: Unclear Whether Rules Being Broken
Co-locating women soldiers with all-male combat units was one of the topics addressed by the Rand Corporation this year in a lengthy report examining women in the Army.
Researchers found that the rules governing co-location — or embedding — of servicewomen are ambiguous. As a result, Rand said it could not determine whether the policy is actually being violated.
Rand found other aspects of the policy to be confusing, as well.
Still, the Pentagon is standing by its rules. Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, says he believes the policy remains relevant — despite the fact that women are finding themselves in combat situations every day.
Carr says he believes the current policy of not assigning women to units that have a mission of direct combat is "reasonable" and "consistent with the expectations and the wishes of the nation."
"While women have extraordinary capabilities — and they certainly spend an extraordinary amount of their time in difficult situations and often in harm's way — they are not deliberately and systematically assigned to units that would be involved in an attack," Carr says.
He says that women are playing important roles, such as participating on patrols where, due to custom, it is necessary for women soldiers to search other women.
But in determining who is "first in" to an attack situation, Carr says women would not be part of the equation.
"The policy is clear enough about what we intend, so that those who are operating understand, even in ambiguous situations, that they would not place the woman first through the door," he says.
He acknowledges that the situation in Iraq is very different from the concept of conventional war in place in 1994 when Aspin wrote the current combat rules.
"The Aspin memo talked about direct ground combat that takes place well forward on the battlefield. At the time that memorandum was issued, that was a view of conventional war: It had a front, it had a rear," Carr says. "But if you're operating in an unconventional war, then you rely on people to interpret the intent, and that is being done very well."