What are female soldiers allowed to do?

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May 19 2005 6:41 PM

What Can Female Soldiers Do?

A primer on the latest wrangling over women in the military.

In the line of fire?
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In the line of fire?

The House Armed Services Committee approved a bill to codify Defense Department policy on women in the military. If passed, the bill would exclude women from units that participate in direct ground combat and would require the military to seek congressional approval before easing current restrictions. What have female soldiers been doing in Iraq, and will this bill change anything?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Women soldiers serve as engineers, truck drivers, communications specialists, and military police officers, as well as in many other supporting roles. They are trained to defend themselves, they carry weapons, and their support units can work closely with ground combat units. They are not allowed to serve on the front lines, though.

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In 1992, Congress repealed existing laws on the role of women in the military. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin then eased administrative restrictions by issuing 1994's "Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule." Before the mid-1990s, women in the Army could only serve in positions that carried almost no risk of combat, like those based at military headquarters. But under Aspin's directive, women could fill any position in the military except those directly involved in ground combat on the front lines. Pentagon rules also prohibit women from taking jobs that "collocate routinely" (i.e., tend to move around) with direct combat units.

In the Army, women can not be assigned to ground combat units at the battalion level or below. (Each level corresponds to a nested unit of increasing size: Squads, platoons, companies, and battalions can participate in direct combat, while brigades, divisions, and corps tend to be more removed.) But the "collocation" provision has proven more open to interpretation, and women have often served in support roles that carry significant risk.

Two factors in the war in Iraq have made the definitions of "direct ground combat" and "collocation" less clear. First, the concept of a "front line" has evaporated as major ground fighting has given way to sporadic bombings, and support units are at greater risk than they once were. (Thirty-two female soldiers have died in Iraq, 22 as a result of hostile action.) Second, the Army has begun to reorganize itself such that smaller forces can deploy more quickly. As a result, support units that once operated at the division level have begun to split into smaller groups ("forward support companies") assigned to specific combat units.

The Army says the support teams will be doing exactly the same work they did before—and that female soldiers will be no more exposed to direct ground combat than they were. But critics of the system in place in Iraq have argued that women in forward support companies "collocate" with ground forces in combat zones, which violates Pentagon policy.

The original version of the bill in the House of Representatives reflects this dispute: It applied only to the Army, and banned women from participating in forward support companies. The version that made it out of committee uses softer language that applies to all armed services: If it passes, the military would be required by law to follow the Pentagon policy from 1994, with fewer exceptions.

Explainer thanks the United States Army, Phillip Carter of McKenna Long & Aldridge, Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, and reader Maggie Norris for asking the question.

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