Fight the Good Fight for Women in Military : Senate addresses women-pilot issue; ground combat next?

Nearly half a year after the Persian Gulf War, one victory is certain. Women have won the right to assume limited combat roles. It is fitting recognition of the patriotism, courage and competence demonstrated by the 35,000 American women who served in the armed forces during the Mideast conflict.

Despite the expanding presence and role of women in the military, combat duty has been exclusively male. That's outdated, archaic and inefficient.

Congress finally has recognized this. The Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to repeal a 43-year-old law that bars women from piloting Navy and Air Force aircraft in combat missions. The House of Representatives previously passed the measure. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has indicated no opposition.

WOMEN PILOTS: Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.), joined by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), led the fight to repeal the 1948 Combat Exclusion Act. The law, which prohibits combat roles for female pilots in the Air Force and Navy, was enacted after World War II in response to public demand for a reduced role for women. The Army is not subject to the law but has its own rules that keep women from flying in combat.

Despite the Senate action, women still face the barrier against ground combat. Recognizing this, the Senate, in a separate action, voted to allow women in all military branches to fill any combat role on a trial 14-month basis while a commission studies lifting all combat bans.

Women have participated, in some way, in every American military campaign since the Revolutionary War. But with the end of the draft in 1973 and the shift to all-volunteer forces, the number of women in military jobs has increased dramatically. Today, 225,000, or 11%, in the armed services are women--about 1,000 of them Air Force and Navy pilots. The military has made various accommodations for women, ranging from child care to separate physical standards. The one notable closed door has been combat.

In the Gulf War, women made up 6% of U.S. troops. Although they technically could not be assigned to combat roles, women ferried food, fuel and troops into battle zones. Eleven women lost their lives and two were taken prisoner. Women provided support services in equipment maintenance, operated communication equipment and developed and provided intelligence. Their Persian Gulf duties were nearly identical to men's, except for combat.

WOMEN SOLDIERS: The final decision on whether to assign women to combat rests with the defense secretary and the military chiefs. But Congress' action sends the right message to the military.

The branches of the armed forces have been split on the issue. The Army and Marines have been the most ardent opponents, insisting that women do not have the strength to perform the infantry tasks most central to their combat mission.

The truth is, many female soldiers, sailors and Marines admit they would not want to have a combat role, although they understand that this reduces their opportunity for advancement; combat experience has long been a prerequisite to getting top jobs in the military.

But other women in the military consider exclusion from combat a cold and brutal glass ceiling over their careers. When women are not allowed combat opportunities, they are in effect blocked in the climb up the military ladder.

Women should, at the very least, have the choice of going into combat. That's equality and opportunity.

Military women have passed muster so far, and they are more than ready, willing and able to show what they can do with the opportunity to do more.

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