San Diego Union Tribune

May 18, 2005

Hunter plan bars women from Army 'forward support'

By Dana Wilkie and Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – Duncan Hunter is defying the government's top brass, pushing a "no women in combat" plan that puts him on a collision course with the Pentagon.

The issue revolves around a disagreement between Hunter, R-El Cajon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and the Army over a 1994 policy that prohibits women from serving in direct combat positions.

The Army has decided to assign women to small support units in the 3rd Infantry Division, which was recently deployed in Iraq. The units, called "forward support companies," provide supply and maintenance services directly to the infantry or armored battalions whose job is to engage in combat.

Republican proponents of Hunter's measure contend it affects only about 30 women. A senior Army official said yesterday the provision would bar female soldiers from nearly 22,000 Army jobs that now are open to them.

Lt. Gen. James Campbell, director of the Army Staff, provided the figure in what Army officials said was a narrow interpretation of the measure.

Regardless of the numbers, Hunter believes the practice violates Army rules that bar female soldiers from units "assigned a direct ground combat mission."

After failing last week to persuade Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's aides to block the move, Hunter added a provision to prohibit the action in the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill.

"Rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun fire and all the other deadly aspects of war will make no distinction between women and men on the front lines," Hunter said in a statement. "The American people have never wanted to have women in combat and this reaffirms that policy."

Although Hunter and Rumsfeld have been in lockstep on nearly every issue involved in the war against terror, Hunter's break with the Pentagon illustrates what some critics see as his allegiance to social conservatives who don't want women in combat.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness – a conservative group fighting the increased use of military women in combat-related roles – said the amendment is not a "restriction" on the role of female soldiers but merely "codifies" existing law.

"Congress should have a say here," Donnelly said. "If they (the Army) have a good case, they should come to Congress and make their case."

Donnelly acknowledged that the amendment would have no effect on the hundreds of female soldiers and Marines who are in military police or larger support units, and who risk being killed or wounded daily in a conflict that has no front lines. About 30 military women have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003. Most of them were serving in transportation or other support units.

Some opposed to Hunter's provision also say it will limit advancement for women in the military.

"It is a reality in the military that if you want to rise up in the ranks and ever hope to have a decent shot at being a general, for example, you have to serve in combat," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. Limiting women to "farther back combat support positions not only disadvantages them in their efforts to rise higher in military command, it also makes it very difficult to supply those (combat) units."

Today, the Armed Services Committee is expected to approve the bill with the Hunter-backed prohibition, which the Armed Services' Military Personnel subcommittee included in a last-minute move last week that angered Democrats. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, who is on the subcommittee, planned a press conference today to criticize the amendment.

Army leaders also oppose the Hunter amendment. In a letter to Hunter's committee, Army Secretary Francis Harvey insisted the Army "is in strict and full compliance with the Department of Defense policies regarding women in combat."

"The proposed amendment will cause confusion in the ranks and will send the wrong signal to the brave young men and women fighting the global war on terrorism," Harvey wrote.

Though Rumsfeld has not been involved in the debate, he is likely to support the Army.

The defense bill must still pass the full House and be reconciled with the Senate's version, which does not include a provision such as Hunter's.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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