House Panel Would Limit Women in Combat This past week, a sub-committee of the House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment that would bar women from serving in forward support companies that work with combat battalions. Army leaders have criticized the legislation. NPR's Jacki Lyden discusses the role of women in the military with one of the amendment's supporters, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), and an opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA). Sgt. First Class Turrie Peoples, an 18-year army veteran who spent more than a year in Iraq, also offers her perspective.
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House Panel Would Limit Women in Combat

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House Panel Would Limit Women in Combat

House Panel Would Limit Women in Combat

House Panel Would Limit Women in Combat

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This past week, a sub-committee of the House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment that would bar women from serving in forward support companies that work with combat battalions. Army leaders have criticized the legislation. NPR's Jacki Lyden discusses the role of women in the military with one of the amendment's supporters, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), and an opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA). Sgt. First Class Turrie Peoples, an 18-year army veteran who spent more than a year in Iraq, also offers her perspective.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden, sitting in for Jennifer Ludden.

We begin our program this evening with the discussion of a question that arose this past week in Congress when a House Armed Services subcommittee voted along party lines to restrict the role of women in the military. Women comprise about 15 percent of all the troops who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women are already prohibited by law from front-line combat, but the Pentagon has been relying on mixed sex forward support companies, whose job is to provides transport, supplies and nursing and other services for active combat units. On Wednesday, a House subcommittee approved an amendment to bar women from these jobs in the Army. Army leaders have criticized the proposed changes, saying they will cause confusion in the ranks and send the wrong signal to young men and women fighting the global war on terrorism.

We have three views of the legislation, beginning with one of its supporters, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones. I asked him why he favors barring women from combat units.

Representative WALTER JONES (Republican, North Carolina): I would think that we should not have women in combat. Obviously there are going to be situations, if they're in the military, where they're close to a combat area, that they might be called on to use a rifle or gun or machine gun. But I don't see putting the women in the forward of a battle situation; I really do not. And this has nothing to discredit the ability of a woman at all. But I just think there are places in combat where women do not need to be.

LYDEN: Well, what roles do you think they should fill?

Rep. JONES: Whatever their assignment is. I mean, they--obviously, in the military, you're trained for certain job responsibilities, and you're also trained to fight. To be very honest with you, I don't have--if the woman is a pilot and she is fighting an enemy in the air, I have no problem with that. But on the ground, I just think that we are better to have men at that forward position fighting the enemy.

LYDEN: Now women have, in this war, actually been very, very close to the front lines, and they have served to assist in forward operating units. Pentagon generals say that this amendment is the wrong message to send.

Rep. JONES Well, Jacki, the other thing I can say, I don't have the military background, but I have had the opportunity to talk to many men and women, but primarily the men have said this to me; that there are places in wartime that women need to be and there are places they should not be. Women should not be on the front lines of combat.

LYDEN: Of course, in Iraq, that front line is a very fluid thing.

Rep. JONES: Well, yes. What we've...

LYDEN: It could mean a platoon going down a street.

Rep. JONES: We're fighting terrorists. I mean, they don't wear uniforms. They're not in the front lines. They hide behind buildings and they're trying to blow people up, so that's a different situation.

LYDEN: But the United States is already anticipating trouble with recruitment. Won't this put the United States in just a tighter bind?

Rep. JONES: Well, I think probably the reason is because many of our young people don't believe we should be in Iraq, and, quite frankly, I share that opinion myself. But we are there, so we have to have recruits, but I think that's part of the problem with the military being able to recruit--is because many do not believe that the policy of being in Iraq was the right decision, so some of the young people are not willing to join the military.

LYDEN: Can't women be particularly useful? When they go out on patrols or into Iraqi homes, isn't there something the women can do that men cannot do that, really, actually does put them in harm's way?

Rep. JONES: Women are involved in situations where they are faced with danger and faced with an enemy. I was thinking more about some of the situations that could exist where you would need to put women out into the mountains of Afghanistan for three and four weeks in trying to hunt down the terrorists. And that situation, in my opinion, would not be where I would want women to be.

LYDEN: North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones.

Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of California is also on the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee that passed the measure, despite her opposition.

Representative LORETTA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): First, I have a problem with the process. This is a major change in policy going on for the United States, and we should discuss this and take a look at the information we have with respect to women in the military. And the second thing, unfortunately, that it's done--from one day to the next, the United States Congress is saying, `Oh, you're not good enough to be there.' Or, more importantly, what message are we sending to the men who are serving with these women in their units? That these women can't watch their backs?

LYDEN: Can we fully ignore the fact that Iraq is a traditional society and that when you see women in particularly sensitive positions--for example, as prison guards--isn't that perhaps an inflammatory or potentially provocative use of women?

Rep. SANCHEZ: First of all, remember that, quite frankly, we tend to think of Iraq as a Muslim country, but the reality is that it was the most secular country in that whole Muslim region, and women were doing all types of things.

LYDEN: But there aren't women serving as Iraqi prison guards, and women really are quite subordinate in many, many parts of Iraq, certainly parts where the US military is fighting.

Rep. SANCHEZ: Well, again, it comes down to: Do we not use the talents of our women or do we? This policy is just not with respect to Iraq; it's within the entire military. And that's why we should have a debate. We need to think about the effect that this will have on recruiting and retaining women in the military because, I'm telling you, we are not hitting our recruitment numbers. Got plenty of letters from women who say, `Why are you barring us from combat? When you do not allow us to fully fulfill what an Army person looks like--and part of that is combat duty--then what you are doing is to keep us from having the training we need and, also, if you will, the admiration or the knowledge of those who are promoting us that, in fact, we are worthy of being a general.'

LYDEN: I would never argue that we don't need the talents of women in the armed forces, but surely the point of being a soldier and being a fighting force is to defeat the enemy. And you're talking about career opportunities.

Rep. SANCHEZ: I'm saying that I believe that women have been doing the job in Iraq and that, all of a sudden, we turn around and, without any knowledge, we're telling them, `You cannot do that job any longer.' And our generals, who are out there in the field every single day with them, have written us letters saying, `Why would you do this? Our women are doing a great job out there.'

LYDEN: Congresswoman Sanchez, do you think that women should do everything that men do in the armed forces?

Rep. SANCHEZ: I don't know if every woman can do every job in the military, but that's not what they're asking for. What happened in committee was, without any discussion--these gentlemen didn't even know what jobs we were talking about barring these women from. We asked, `Do you think that that includes being military police?' `No, of course it doesn't,' someone said. And then we said to them, `Well, we've talked to some people who have seen this language who are sending troops and filling positions in Iraq, and they are telling us they think it does mean that.'

LYDEN: Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of California.

Now we get a perspective from outside the Washington Beltway. We turn to Army 1st Sergeant Turrie Peoples. For over a year, until this past March, Sergeant Peoples was a platoon leader in Baghdad, running over 200 convoys on the dangerous road to the Baghdad international airport. I asked her to review the deployments of her 18-year career.

Sergeant 1st Class TURRIE PEOPLES (US Army): I've spent three tours in Korea, one in Germany. I've been to Ft. Carson, Colorado, Ft. Bragg and three times here at Ft. Hood, Texas.

LYDEN: You heard some of the points of Congressman Jones. What do you think about that proposition?

Sgt. 1st Class PEOPLES: In some aspects, I think that he could be right about certain things. But I spent a whole year in Iraq in a forward support company, supporting armor and infantry, and did it well. So as far as that goes, I think that women are capable of holding any position. I know females that had been out on checkpoints. I know females that have run convoys. So as far as that goes, I think it has its limitations, but why are we trying to do this now when it's already been done?

LYDEN: What are the limitations?

Sgt. 1st Class PEOPLES: As far as going forward, you know, on the battlefield, I think there's limitations to that, you know, and spending weeks at a time, you know, out in the field where, you know, facilities aren't available for women as they would be for men, you know. But as far as that goes, you know, to shoot a weapon, to drive a vehicle, we're capable of doing those things. So you trained me to fire all these different weapons, so why couldn't I do these kind of things? Why couldn't I hold a position like that? That's exactly what I get at because I was the only female platoon sergeant in a task force that was comprised of over 920 men.

LYDEN: You mentioned being surprised that this issue is coming up now. What effect do you think this will have on women who are already in the military should this become law?

Sgt. 1st Class PEOPLES: I think that some of the things that we have to do over there in Iraq, they're not going to be able to do because they don't have women. And these require women to be in these certain positions.

LYDEN: Like what?

Sgt. 1st Class PEOPLES: For example, I will give you--I had two female soldiers who were in Iraq that worked at the checkpoints, and the reason why they worked at these checkpoints is so they could search the Iraqi civilian women that came in through the checkpoints to work. Over there they're not--men are not allowed to search women physically. They are not allowed to even touch them.

LYDEN: Right.

Sgt. 1st Class PEOPLES: And when they would do raids, they used my females. So in those areas right there, you know, we require women, period. I mean, there's nothing else to be said about it. The female soldiers that I did have, I think that they were used to the point where they were always out there. They worked every single day, maybe getting one or two days off a week maybe--some downtime, not really a day off, but some downtime. And that was the cycle that they kept the entire rotation that we were over in Iraq.

LYDEN: What effect do you think this proposal to bar women from combat support units would have on the recruitment of women to the military?

Sgt. 1st Class PEOPLES: Well, I think that it would bring down--it would bring it down a whole lot. You wouldn't see a whole lot of women wanting to be a part of the military if they passed this amendment.

LYDEN: Turrie Peoples is a sergeant first class in the Army. She spoke to us from Ft. Hood, Texas.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

Sgt. 1st Class PEOPLES: Oh, you're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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