Bill to Restrict Women's Role in Combat Advances

The House Armed Services Committee votes to restrict women in the military from serving in jobs that could put them in direct ground combat. The panel's approval sets the stage for a major battle when the full House debates the measure. A vote could come as early as next week and may put legislators at odds with the Pentagon.

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American military women have found themselves on the front lines in Iraq, and early this morning, the House Armed Services Committee moved to restrict women from serving in jobs that could involve fighting on the ground. The Pentagon has kept certain positions only for men but increasingly women are joining them in critical support and technical positions. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Over the 1980s and '90s, women served in increasingly critical military positions. At the same time, says Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, there was an assumption that conflicts of the future would be remote-controlled push-button wars. Now that those conflicts are in the present, says Hunter, it's clear they're not.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): They're wars that involved the grim reality of close combat, some of it as close as only several feet, and they involve casualties.

SEABROOK: Hunter believes that kind of combat is not appropriate for women. The California Republican was recently alarmed to discover that in Iraq, where right now some 17,000 women are serving, many are performing jobs that put them in dangerous combatlike positions. And so Hunter drafted a measure to include in the upcoming defense authorization bill that would heavily restrict the kinds of jobs military women can perform. To his surprise, it was immediately and roundly opposed by the secretary of the Army, whose staff estimated that some 22,000 positions would be cut off to women, that amid drastically low recruitment levels and an already overstretched, overworked military. It is, therefore, no surprise that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, caught between the powerful Armed Services chairman and his own Pentagon, had this careful opinion on the matter while visiting Capitol Hill yesterday.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Well, my position is that I want to learn and get better informed so that I can participate in the discussion on the thing in an intelligent way.

SEABROOK: By yesterday evening, Hunter and his fellow Republican John McHugh of New York had drafted a new version of the measure. This one, they said, acknowledges that after decades of women serving in increasingly critical and dangerous positions, they can't, quote, "put the genie back in the bottle," but McHugh said...

Representative JOHN McHUGH (Republican, New York): We're the Congress, we're the Armed Services Committee, we're the overseers, and if this nation's daughters and mothers are going to be sent into direct combat, it ought to be because we order it.

SEABROOK: The new version of the measure would bar military leaders from opening any new combat-support jobs to women and urges leaders to do everything they can to protect the women who are already in the line of fire. The measure would also formally block the Pentagon from sending women to the front lines for direct ground combat without a vote in Congress. It drew confusion and anger from Democrats who said it instructs leaders to treat women and men in the same positions differently. And as for keeping women from the front line, asked California's Loretta Sanchez, where's that?

Representative LORETTA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): Ruby Rubalcava of El Paso was sitting eating a meal in the mess hall at Mosul. She wasn't on the front lines someplace but the front line today has changed. I mean, the war came to her. It came in a person strapped with a bomb and blew her up there.

SEABROOK: Even among Hunter's Republican colleagues, he may have trouble getting support for this. Take Heather Wilson of New Mexico.

Representative HEATHER WILSON (Republican, New Mexico): Women are there, they're doing the job, and they're, by all accounts, doing the job well.

SEABROOK: Wilson is the only female veteran in Congress and a graduate of the US Air Force Academy. She says the move by leaders of her own party shows a lack of understanding of what modern combat is like.

Rep. WILSON: Women will be at risk, even if they say, `No, we're not going to assign you to this forward support company.' If you're a woman driving a water truck or serving lunch in the mess tent, you can be ambushed or attacked at any time.

SEABROOK: Still, the measure passed the Armed Services Committee on a series of party line votes. That sets up a fight in the whole House as early as next week.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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