Pentagon Opening More Posts to Women Short of Ground-Combat

The U.S. military plans to open more support jobs for women closer to the front lines while continuing to bar them from direct ground-combat roles.

The changes would let more women serve in battalions, smaller units closer to the front, in more than 1,000 support positions such as communications or as medics, according to a Pentagon report released today. More than 13,000 other positions would be opened by eliminating a rule barring women from jobs that only exist in ground-combat units. Congress will have 30 days to block the policy before it goes into effect.

The Pentagon rejected calls from two advisory boards to eliminate all restrictions, including in units involved in direct ground combat. The military disputed the contention of women’s groups that restrictions on combat involvement hurt promotion chances for the 205,000 women among the military’s 1.4 million people on active duty and more in the reserves.

The Pentagon “did not find indication of females having less than equitable opportunities to compete and excel under current assignment policy,” according to the report. Still, the department is developing gender-neutral physical standards for certain tasks that will open more assignments.

While the proposal opens an additional 14,000 jobs to women, 238,000 positions will remain closed, according to department figures, even after a decade of war that has seen women on the front lines because of exceptions to the rules.

Today’s decision doesn’t go far enough because assignments remain off-limits for women, Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, said today in a statement.

Picking ‘Best Person’

“The Department of Defense should ensure the readiness of the force by establishing once and for all that when the best person for a job is a woman, her gender should not stand in the way,” she said.

The department needs more time to study the effects of further changes and will examine the policy again in six months to see whether more positions can be opened, according to Vee Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of defense for personnel policy.

“To make a change this large while you’re at war is difficult,” said Penrod, a 35-year Air Force veteran who now serves in the department as a civilian. Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, she said some commanders in the Army and Marine Corps are pushing for more restrictions to be lifted.

Women’s Share

Women make up 15 percent of active-duty personnel, 7 percent of general or flag officers and 11 percent of the senior enlisted force, according to the report.

“These figures are strong, given that retention of women is significantly less than that of men beyond 20 years of service, where the majority of these promotions to the senior grades occur,” the department said in the report being sent to Congress.

Congress’s Military Leadership Diversity Commission and the 60-year-old Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services each recommended in December 2010 that the military eliminate a 1994 policy on excluding women from combat.

The policy expanded access for women while prohibiting their assignments to units below the brigade level when a unit’s primary mission is direct ground combat. The restriction doesn’t exclude women from fighting because they can be assigned to combat zones in support jobs.

Bunking Arrangements

One of the restrictions being lifted will open 80 units and six occupational specialties previously closed to women because they must be located with ground combat units, according to the report.

Remaining “practical barriers” the department cited today for not going further include bunking arrangements on ships and other privacy concerns.

Among the most restricted areas remaining for women is special operations, an area the military will rely on more in the coming decade under a new defense strategy unveiled last month that calls for more small, nimble and highly trained units.

The changes proposed today will affect mainly the Army and Marine Corps because more types of jobs are open to women in the Air Force and the Navy.

In the Air Force, 99 percent of positions are open to women, and the Navy permits women in 88 percent of its jobs. By comparison, women are allowed in 66 percent of Army jobs and 68 percent of those in the Marines.

‘Obsolete Barrier’

While the easing of limits on support positions in battalions will have a “huge impact,” the remaining restrictions on infantry, armor and special operations service are disappointing, said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the New York-based Service Women’s Action Network.

The Pentagon will continue to “enforce this obsolete barrier on women’s entry into combat arms fields,” Bhagwati said in an e-mailed statement today.

“Women who have served in the Middle East alongside their male peers have been denied the awards, badges and even veterans’ benefits that their male counterparts have been granted for doing the same job,” she said.

‘Attaching’ Women

Congress in 2010 mandated a review of laws, policies and regulations that restrict the service of women in the armed forces to determine how best to provide “equitable opportunity to compete and excel.”

Some of the military services are skirting existing restrictions by “attaching” women to certain positions rather than “assigning” them, according to Campbell.

“The reality of the wars has made it difficult to adhere to” the restrictions, Campbell, who is a member of the defense advisory committee, said today in an interview. “No. 1, where’s the front line? And two, they need people.”

Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has said he favors more women serving in positions such as intelligence, signaling and other specialties in combat battalions, where they’re not allowed under current regulations.

“We need their talent,” Odierno said in September on “This Week in Defense News,” a television program. “We have incredibly talented females who should be in those positions.”

The services can take steps on their own, including last year’s decision by the Navy to open officer positions on submarines to women. Those positions had been closed because of provisions on protecting privacy in the 1994 policy.

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