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“It’s a proposal that could seriously harm both the morale and the on-the-ground capabilities of our military,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in 2011 in CQ. “As much as some feminists may begrudge biology for undermining their arguments, the fact remains that men and women are different.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had not received advance word of Panetta’s move.
“That is a decision one would expect the Pentagon to consult with congress about,” he said Wednesday.
But perceptions of women in combat roles have undergone a significant shift since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which some women played important roles. A more radical shift occurred during the past 10 years, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created muddled battle lines that often left women in direct combat.
Several female members of Congress have been deployed to combat zones, including freshman Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who served two tours in the Middle East.
“Female service members have contributed on the battlefield as far back as the Civil War, when some disguised themselves as men just to have the opportunity to serve their nation,” Gabbard said in a statement Wednesday. “This decision by the Department of Defense is an overdue, yet welcome change, which I strongly support.”
According to the Congressional Research Services, over the years, more than 283,000 female servicemembers have been deployed worldwide.
“In approximately 10 years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 800 women have been wounded and over 130 have died,” CRS stated in a December report. “According to the Department of Defense (DOD), as of February 29, 2012, over 20,000 female members have served or are serving Afghanistan and Iraq. (U.S. forces were out of Iraq as of Dec. 2011).”
Indeed, two women have received the Silver Star, the second highest award for valor.
Primarily, women are barred from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers, and special operations units of battalion size or smaller. But the restrictions on their roles are a matter of policy that the administration and the Pentagon may modify, according to CRS.
In 2010, the Navy notified Congress that it was modifying its policy to allow women to serve as permanent crew members aboard submarines. More recently, Army doctrine changes “called into question the ground exclusion policy, or at least, the services’ adherence to it,” CRS stated. “This is the result particularly from the policy of collocating support units (to which women are assigned) with combat units, along with adapting to the unusual (nonlinear) warfare tactics encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the utilization of women in what some view as new nontraditional roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.”