Canton Repository

May 25, 2005

House expects fierce debates on base closings, women in combat

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives is expected to have heated fights today over the emotional issues of women in combat and military base closure during debate on a bill that would authorize $490.7 billion for normal defense programs and emergency funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.

One battle will be sparked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers’ attempt to nullify a provision inserted into the defense authorization by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, which would prevent the military from assigning women to any additional combat-related jobs.

That provision was championed by committee chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the personnel subcommittee, and approved last week on a near party-line committee vote. It would lock into law a 1994 Pentagon policy that opened thousands of military jobs to women, but barred them from direct ground combat.

Supporters of the measure complained that the Army was ignoring part of the policy that also restricted women from units that are “required to collocate and remain with direct ground combat units that are closed to women.”

They were reacting to the Army’s assignment of about two-dozen female soldiers to units that provide medical and maintenance support and supplies to ground combat troops in the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq.

The provision Hunter supported would retain all positions military women currently hold, but prohibit the services from adding any new jobs for females unless Congress approves.

Opponents argued that the provision would needlessly restrict the opportunities for women in the military and the flexibility commanders need to respond to changing conditions.

They note that about 10,000 military women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, 35 have been killed and scores have been wounded, all of them while serving in supposedly non-combat roles such as military police and truck drivers.

The Army said the committee’s action “is unnecessary, does not provide further clarification and may in fact lead to confusion on the part of commanders and soldiers.”

One of the provision’s opponents is Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., an Air Force Academy graduate and the only female military veteran in Congress. Wilson said the intent of the provision is “to close positions (to women) not to open them. I think it’s offensive.”

But Hunter rejected those complaints Tuesday, arguing that the measure was not changing policy, but merely “maintaining the status quo” on the assignment of women unless Congress approves new jobs.

If women are to be sent into combat, Congress should make that decision, “not un-elected officials,” he said.

An amendment to be offered by Wilson, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and senior Democrats from the Armed Services Committee, would replace the GOP’s proposed legislation with a requirement for the Pentagon to provide a report on what jobs military women now hold.

Despite the ban on ground combat jobs, women are serving in combat roles, such as Air Force and Navy fighter and bomber pilots, officers and crew members on Navy warships and pilots and aircrew on Army and Marine Corps helicopters that carry infantry into battle.

The Army’s official Web site carries a story on three female soldiers who were manning machine guns protecting a convoy in Baghdad, even though their assigned job was in a civil affairs unit.

The vote over women in combat is likely to be close.

An effort to stop the base closure and realignment process, led by a handful of House members whose districts would lose major bases, is expected to fall short.