Report: Women should be allowed in combat units

WASHINGTON (AP) — Women should finally be allowed to serve fully in combat, a military advisory panel said Friday in a report seeking to dismantle the last major area of discrimination in the armed forces.

The call by a commission of current and retired military officers to let women be front-line fighters could set in motion another sea change in military culture as the armed forces, generations after racial barriers fell, grapples with the phasing out of the ban on gays serving openly.

The newest move is being recommended by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, established by Congress two years ago. The panel was to send its proposals to Congress and President Barack Obama.

It is time “to create a level playing field for all qualified service members,” the members said.

Opponents of putting women in combat question whether they have the necessary strength and stamina. They also have said the inclusion of women in infantry and other combat units might harm unit cohesion, a similar argument to that made regarding gays. And they warn Americans won’t tolerate large numbers of women coming home in body bags. Those arguments have held sway during previous attempts to lift the ban.

Congress recently stripped the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays serving openly, and the Navy changed its rules over the last year to allow women to serve on submarines for the first time. Women are barred from certain combat assignments in all the services but face the broadest restrictions in the Army and Marines.

Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network, said the prohibition on women in combat “is archaic, it does not reflect the many sacrifices and contributions that women make in the military, and it ignores the reality of current war-fighting doctrine.”

Although thousands of American women have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and been exposed to great danger — 134 of them have been killed — they have been largely restricted to combat support jobs such as medics or logistical and transportation officers.

Defense policy prohibits women from being assigned to any unit smaller than a brigade whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground.

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