Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand Pentagon rules dictate that women may not be assigned to ground combat units. But the nature of the Iraq war has led to a blurring of distinction between front-line and rear areas, and more women are finding themselves in the thick of battle.
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Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand

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Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand

Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand

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And now, to women and war. This week, we're examining the role women are playing in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2002, women have served close to 170,000 tours of duty in those countries. Pentagon rules dictate that women may not be assigned to ground combat units. That means women cannot serve in the infantry, they're not special operations commandos. But women are serving as truck drivers, gunners, medics, military police, helicopter pilots and more.

Military sociologist Brenda Moore has been talking to women recently returned from Iraq. She's with the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

Dr. BRENDA MOORE (Military Sociologist, University at Buffalo, SUNY): History is happening as we speak. Gulf War II is a war, as you well know, against guerrilla insurgency. It's a war fought with the use of IEDs, mortar attacks, suicide bombing, rocket-propelled grenades, and the like. And so although American women are prohibited from serving in direct combat, the unpredictable nature of the attacks in this war blurs the distinction between frontline and rear areas. Women who are assigned to support units are finding themselves in the thick of the battle.

NORRIS: It is a curious conundrum here. Women are barred from taking part in ground combat, but are they trained…

Dr. MOORE: Uh-huh.

NORRIS: …to take part in ground combat?

Dr. MOORE: My understanding is that everyone is being trained for this type of war.

NORRIS: The women who deploy to Iraq in the early stages, did they have training for ground combat?

Dr. MOORE: No. These are lessons learned and things are going on as we speak.

NORRIS: So now that the military has sort of crossed this line or the line that's become rather fuzzy, it is a case where the military is bending the rule, breaking the rule, or just sort of circumventing the combat ban out of necessity?

Dr. MOORE: The latter. It's interesting to examine some of the factors that have led to the changes that we see today. And a big contributing factor was the change from the military draft to the all-volunteer force, which took place in the mid-1970s, and this actually led to opportunities for women to serve in greater numbers as the services sought to meet personnel goals. There simply were not enough men volunteering to serve, making the service of women a necessity.

And then a couple of decades later, Congress lifted the ban on women flying combat aircraft and serving on combat ships. More specialties opened to women in the military during the '90s when then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced a new combat definition rule, thereby opening more military jobs to women. He also approved policy leading to an increase in the number of women serving in combat support and combat service support units. So all of these legislative changes helped to explain the expanding role of women in today's military.

NORRIS: How does the U.S. compare to other countries in terms of what women are allowed to do in the military?

Dr. MOORE: Well, one thing, things are changing. They're ever changing now. In the Netherlands, the Sexual Equality Act of 1979 led to the integration of the military women corps in the regular military. And unlike the United States, combat duty was open to women in the Dutch military without formal restrictions. In practice, Dutch women are assigned in traditional occupational roles of clerical, communication, nursing and administrating occupation. So while legislatively, these roles are open, in actuality, women have not been serving in direct combat.

NORRIS: Is that true with Israel as well, which has no…

Dr. MOORE: Well, it's interesting that you bring up Israel because of the fact per the Israeli Defense Service Law, all Jewish women 18 years of age are liable for conscription for a two-year period. In practice, however, the Israeli Defense Force does not take all eligible 18-year-old women, but rather select the number of women it needs to meet personnel quotas each year.

So although women in the Israeli military may volunteer for assignments in combat, as soon as that combat unit is deployed, women are generally evacuated.

NORRIS: So is the U.S. find itself almost on the vanguard of women in combat because of the war in Iraq?

Dr. MOORE: I would say so. Now, there are other countries that are serving there, and probably of very similar experiences, but these women are there. For example, I think that not just the United States, but this is a time in our world history that women are actually serving in unprecedented roles not because they have the military occupational specialty but because they're there.

NORRIS: Professor Moore, thank you very much for your time. Good to talk to you.

Dr. MOORE: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: That was sociologist Brenda Moore at the University of Buffalo. Tomorrow, we continue our series with reflections from women who are serving.

Unidentified Woman #1: Enlisting into the Army being a female, you got to know that you got to be thick-skinned, and that you're going to be working with males, and you can't be crying and complaining that you have PMS or anything. You got to suck it up and be like a man.

NORTHAM: Female service members, tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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