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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Given how much we hear about women fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, the reality is that women are - as they have been traditionally - barred from actual combat units.

MONTAGNE: The current wars have blurred what is known as the front lines and what is and is not combat. Now, the fact that women are in the middle of the fight is being acknowledged by a high-ranking military commission, and it is set to recommend the combat rules be changed.

NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin is here with us this morning to talk more about it.

Good morning.

RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: First of all, Rachel, what does this combat exclusion policy for women say?

MARTIN: Well, it's a Pentagon rule that says the hundreds of thousands of women currently serving in the military cannot explicitly be assigned to combat units. That's things like artillery or infantry units. They can be attached to support these units, which can be dangerous in and of itself, actually. But they can't be officially assigned to them.

MONTAGNE: And tell us what the commission is looking into.

MARTIN: Well, this is a congressionally appointed commission. It's made up of high-ranking retired and active-duty military officers. And they were ordered by Congress to think about how to make the force more diverse and to increase recruitment. And part of that was debating the role of women in the military and thinking about whether or not to roll back this combat exclusion policy.

MONTAGNE: Now, women, you might think - you know, traditionally, women haven't been in combat units because the thought is they don't belong there. And it may be hard for men serving alongside them in combat situations. So why is the commission expected to recommend that the policy be changed?

MARTIN: Well, there are several big issues here. A major one is the issue of promotion, because the quickest and most direct way, Renee, to rise through the ranks is to be in these top - to get to these top positions is by getting combat assignments. But women can't get those jobs. So it can end up limiting their promotion opportunities.

Another big issue is that the policy doesn't reflect what's already happening in a war where, as you mentioned, the front lines are really blurred and women are already in combat.

Here's an exchange. Let's listen, from one of the commission's meetings last fall. This is retired Marine Lieutenant General Frank Petersen asking a question to a panel of military women.

FRANK PETERSEN: Here's my problem. We're talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you would volunteer to live like that?

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: I've lived like that. I've lived out there with the guys, and I would do it. It's about the job.

MARTIN: So, Renee, that was Tammy Duckworth replying there. She was an Apache helicopter pilot who served in Iraq. She lost both of her legs in that war. And now she's now the number two at the Department Of Veterans Affairs. And that exchange gives you a sense of the tone of this debate.

And there are other issues that have been really controversial. The issue of recruitment. Some say it'll increase recruitment of women. Others say it'll actually deter women from joining, if they have the option of going into combat. There's also the issue of retention. If you open up these jobs to women, will they stay in them? What if they get pregnant and they can't deploy? And finally, the issue of unit cohesion. Will having women in these intense fighting situations undermine morale in some way?

MONTAGNE: And that was a big argument with "don't ask, don't tell."

MARTIN: Exactly. We heard that a lot. And several members of the commission actually referenced that debate over "don't ask, don't tell." They say since those arguments have now been put to rest - that it's be determined that letting openly gay people serve won't damage unit cohesion - that to make the same argument about women just doesn't hold water.

MONTAGNE: So what's next?

MARTIN: Well, the commission is meeting today and tomorrow to finalize the draft report. But the final version goes to Congress and the White House in mid-March. We're told that resolution about the combat exclusion policy will not change, that it will stick. But this is really the only - the first step. It could be a long time before this policy is actually changed, if it ever is. But this recommendation from a high-level commission will definitely stir up public debate on the issue.

MONTAGNE: Rachel, thanks very much.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Rachel Martin is NPR's national security correspondent.

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