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WASHINGTON, D.C. – In one of his last official acts as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is announcing that women are now eligible to serve in battlefront posts. This means that female soldiers and Marines may now serve in infantry units and possibly even elite Special Forces units.
The move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule that banned women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Some of the changes will occur this year, while decisions concerning special operations forces will probably take longer.
Women make up about 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin said that infantry and other front-line units are not the proper place for women and the reason is not because they lack the capabilities or courage. Boykin, former head of the U.S. Special Forces Command observed:
“The people making this decision are doing so as part of another social experiment, and they have never lived nor fought with an infantry or Special Forces unit. These units have the mission of closing with and destroying the enemy, sometimes in close hand-to-hand combat. They are often in sustained operations for extended periods, during which they have no base of operations nor facilities. Their living conditions are primal in many situations with no privacy for personal hygiene or normal functions.”
Incorporating the genders in direct-combat situations “places additional and unnecessary burdens on leaders at all levels,” Boykin said. “While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast moving and deadly situations.”
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, calls it a mistake to treat the military like just another civilian equal-opportunity employer. She said, “If a soldier is wounded in battle…a collocated support soldier may be the only person in a position to evacuate the wounded soldier on his own back. In this environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive. Lives should not be put at needless risk just to satisfy ‘diversity metrics’ for the career ambitions of a few.”
In statement last February, Donnelly said; “By formally eliminating rules affecting units collocated with infantry battalions, the Defense Department is imposing needless complications and burdens on direct ground combat units. The Pentagon also is inviting another ACLU lawsuit challenging young women’s exemption from Selective Service registration, which the courts have upheld as constitutional because women are not assigned to direct ground combat.”