MICHELE NORRIS, host:

All this week, we're talking about the role women are playing in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, opposing views about Pentagon policy governing women in combat. The current policy 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 moment, we'll hear more from the Pentagon.

But first, Elaine Donnelly of the conservative think tank, Center for Military Readiness. She's a staunch opponent of women in combat. In the 1990s, as a member of a commission on women in the military under the first President Bush, she fought against allowing women to fly combat aircraft. And now, she believes the rules pertaining to ground combat are not being followed.

Ms. ELAINE DONNELLY (President, Center for Military Readiness): They 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.

NORRIS: Donnelly says the Army is ordering women to serve in support units that co-locateor embed with all-male infantry units. As a result, she says, everyone on the battlefield is exposed to greater risk. She gives this example.

Ms. DONNELLY: A support soldier might be a mechanic or a cook or a logistics person and they are embedded with the infantry. The infantry goes into a battle. The infantry soldier is shot by a sniper and must be rescued. The nearest soldier might be that cook or logistics person or a mechanic. If that soldier is a male, that male soldier has the opportunity or the capability, I should say, to lift the infantry soldier and take him to safety so that his life can be saved.

If that co-located soldier is a female soldier, no matter how brave and courageous she is, no matter how hard she tries, she would not be able to evacuate that soldier on her back because that's the only way you can do it in combat under fire. There is no excuse for anybody's son, an infantryman, to lose his life because the co-located soldier nearby was a female solder, 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.

NORRIS: That's Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness.

Co-location 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 is deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy. He told me he believes the policy remains relevant despite the fact that women are finding themselves in combat situations every day.

Mr. BILL CARR (Deputy Undersecretary for Military Personnel Policy, Defense Department): I think the policy as it's currently set is still reasonable and we think consistent with the expectations and the wishes of the nation. Women may not be assigned to units that have a mission of direct ground combat. So that's roughly equivalent to saying women may not be assigned to infantry units. We think that's probably the way the nation would prefer it.

And 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.

NORRIS: But there's - in speaking to women who've actually served and looking at their experiences, it seems that the regulation is out of step with experience of women on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, there are cases where women were actually going into homes in direct combat situations.

Mr. CARR: I'm glad you brought that up. Actually, I talked with the RAND researcher about that because, of course, women do accompany patrols and must, because of the need to search the occupants of the house, some of whom are women and by custom, which we would respect and accede to, then we would have women do the searching, so women are present.

But then when the question is posed to the group how is the first in determined, and even if it were determined on a rotating basis, do women participating in the rotation, the answer is no. Because 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. Not that the woman doesn't seek that, but members of the unit understand that that's almost offensive in its nature in terms of an operation. So the woman would not be the first through the door.

And there are - through the report, a number of ways that plays out. Where you publish a rule, but with ambiguous circumstances, people have to interpret and they do, and they're doing it very well.

NORRIS: But with regard to that distinction, does it matter if you're the first or the second or the third through the door? You still face danger.

Mr. CARR: I think the - if you are the first-through things are not known. And if you were - for example, after the house was secured - to enter the property, then you are relatively safer.

NORRIS: Now, we've been talking about the RAND Report. This report found that many of the concepts laid out in Secretary Les Aspin's 1994 memo aren't really applicable today. And it begins with the very definition of direct combat.

In the current conflict in Iraq, where the enemy is so ill defined and the battlefield is essentially the entire country, I'm curious in hearing from you what you think constitutes direct combat. How do you define that right now?

Mr. CARR: Well, I think you're referring - and I think correctly to - in the Aspin memo. It talked about direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield. And at the time that memorandum was issued, that was a view of conventional war that it had a front and it had a rear. 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.

So we would say would not be assigned well forward as a proxy for saying that you would not be placed directly next to the enemy whoever they are. But again, in a counterinsurgency, you don't know where they are. And so in that context you could only preserve any possibility of women coming close to the fight if you limited their presence in the theater. And they have - they are talented, they are enthusiastic, fit, prepared, trained, and they want to be in where the action is, as well, within reason and within the bounds of proper utilization.

NORRIS: Undersecretary Carr, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. CARR: Thank you so much, ma'am.

NORRIS: We've been speaking to Bill Carr. He's deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy. He joined us from the Pentagon.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on the program: Female veterans, PTSD, and what's being called the double whammy.

Unidentified Woman: After a while, I just became numb. I wasn't myself. And I've realized that, but I had to be whatever it is that I was in order to survive from the enemies and from my own platoon members.

SIEGEL: Overcoming combat stress and sexual assault. Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can hear earlier conversations in the series at our Web site, npr.org.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.