Bid to Limit Women's Combat Role Dropped

Having met resistance from the Pentagon and from Democrats in Congress, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee today gave up on his effort to limit the role of women in combat. An unusual coalition changed the course of the defense bill.

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Republicans in the House of Representatives have retreated from a plan to restrict the role of women in war zones. The Pentagon currently excludes women from direct combat and combat support jobs. But the chairman of the House Armed Service Committee and other Republicans wanted to restrict women's duties further. They were forced to pull back this week not once, but twice, by objections from the Department of Defense. We'll hear from women soldiers in Iraq in just a few moments, but, first, NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports from the Capitol.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Members of Congress often talk in numbers. Statistics of all kinds are used to back up arguments or tear them down. Two numbers were largely responsible for sparking the current controversy over women in combat: 35 and 280. About 35 military women have been killed in action in Iraq so far, and about 280 have been wounded. For House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, those numbers are too high. Last week the California Republican moved to drastically restrict the number of combatlike positions military women can hold. His provision would have shut off women from some 22,000 jobs for which they're eligible now, according to the Army.

But Hunter's measure was hit by a barrage of numbers from the other side, like 17,000, the number of military women serving in Iraq right now, and these statistics wielded by Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan.

Representative MARTY MEEHAN (Democrat, Massachusetts): The current provision is also not worthy of the brave women who make up 15 percent of the active-duty Army, 23 percent of the Army Reserve and 13 percent of the Guard.

SEABROOK: Opposition came not only from Democrats but from many parts of the Pentagon and from military women themselves. Last week Hunter pulled back somewhat, and today he was forced into full retreat. In meetings last night with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and several Republican colleagues, a new deal was struck. If the Pentagon wants to move women into direct combat and support positions, they must notify members of Congress and give them 60 working days' advance notice. Hunter said this new version will not restrict military jobs for women.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): There are 2,800 job opportunities open to women in the military. This provision, very appropriately, injects Congress into the policy role of making the determination, if it should ever be proposed by DOD, to move women into direct ground combat.

SEABROOK: Hunter said if the Pentagon does move to open combat positions to women, he and other congressional Republicans would immediately block it. The reason why, said New York Republican John McHugh, is that many members of Congress believe women shouldn't be put in jobs that involve direct fighting, like infantry units that engage in hand-to-hand combat or mechanics who fix tank treads during battle.

Representative JOHN McHUGH (Republican, New York): Those are the only forces in American military that are sent forward for one reason: to engage the enemy face to face. Regardless of how you feel about that insofar as should women be side by side with them or not, I think we can all agree that's a very serious step to take. It's one we've never taken, and it's the only one left.

SEABROOK: Democrats argued against even the watered-down version of Hunter's provision. New York's Louise Slaughter and others called it an insult to the women serving right now in Iraq.

Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): We will be telling them and, indeed, their families, `We've seen your work defending freedom and liberty here at home and abroad, and you aren't good enough.' I can't think of a more disgusting message to be sending to troops, especially in time of war.

SEABROOK: And the Congress' only female veteran, Republican Heather Wilson of New Mexico, added another number to the debate, the number of women in US history who have served in the military: two million.

Representative HEATHER WILSON (Republican, New Mexico): In this history of this country, there has never been a law limiting the assignment of women in the Army, and we will not do so this year.

SEABROOK: Wilson, Democrats and many in the Pentagon believe all these numbers don't capture a central truth: that in modern warfare, there is no clear front line, and in Iraq, women are already serving in hard combat positions. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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