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New Rules on Women in Combat Open Up More Jobs for Military Servicewomen

By February 9, 2012

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Nobody wants to see any of our "boys" or "girls" get hurt in combat, and longstanding rules in the military bar women from being assigned to fight on the front lines. Yet a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have blurred the distinction of what a "front line" is, while at the same time women serving as medics, military police, intelligence officers and other support positions have nonetheless been caught in the thick of battle.

The Defense Department is finally catching up to this new reality of war with a rule change submitted today to Congress. In it, the Pentagon recommends that the roles of military women be expanded, allowing them to serve in a greater number of jobs that take them closer to the front lines. Today's recommendation will allow servicewomen to advance beyond brigade level jobs and be assigned to battalion-level positions. (The military terms describe the size of the organizational units involved and their subordinate elements, thus a brigade can number between 3,000-5,000 soldiers while a battalion has between 300-1,000 soldiers. For an easy-to-understand explanation of the differences between these U.S. Army units, About.com Military Guide Rod Powers offers a straightforward breakdown of the chain of command.)

According to the Associated Press, the Pentagon report was due last spring and follows the findings of an independent panel that urged the lifting of the ban on women in combat:

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission said the Pentagon should phase in additional career fields and units that women could be assigned to as long as they are qualified.

A 1994 combat exclusion policy bans women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level....

So while a woman serving as a communications or intelligence officer can be formally assigned to a brigade, she can't be assigned to the smaller battalion. The military has gotten around those rules by "attaching" women in those jobs to battalions, which meant they could do the work, but not get the credit for being in combat arms.

And since service in combat gives troops an advantage for promotions and job opportunities, it has been more difficult for women to move to the higher ranks.

So in a sense, the Pentagon is finally allowing women to take credit when and where credit is due by legitimizing their service with this rule change. It's certainly long overdue as nearly 300,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and 144 have died.

AFP cites this as a "milestone for the American military," noting that since the 1970s various prohibitions on women's roles in the military have been lifted in incremental steps. A senior defense official says the move will open up 14,000 jobs for women:

The changes mainly apply to the Army, as well as the US Marine Corps, the official said. The Air Force and Navy have few remaining restrictions on female service members, after a 2010 decision that opened the door to women serving on submarines....

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved the policy change after receiving an internal report that looked at women' roles and the experience of a decade of war that thrust women into battle....

Officials described the new rules as more of an evolutionary step and not a radical reform, revising policies that were out of touch with realities on the battlefield.

Unless Congress delays or blocks the recommended change, the new policy should go into effect this summer.

Photo of female Marines Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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