Canton Repository

May 26, 2005

Effort to restrict new combat for women falters

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter abandoned the effort to prevent the armed services from assigning women to any new ground combat-related jobs Wednesday, but the bitterness over the issue lingered during House consideration of the defense authorization bill.

The House approved a $491 billion defense bill Wednesday by a 390-39 vote.

Under pressure from the Pentagon, most of the Democrats and a number of Republicans, Hunter, R-Calif., replaced the restrictive language that he had supported with a requirement that the Pentagon notify Congress 60 days before expanding the ground combat support jobs women can hold. That provision merely adds 30 days to the currently required notification.

Hunter’s new provision also requires the Pentagon to report by next March 31 on its compliance with a 1994 policy barring women from direct ground combat and any possible future changes in the assignment of women. The report also must examine the impact of the Army’s plans to shift to smaller, more mobile fighting units, which would have support elements closely attached.

Those requirements replaced a measure that would have locked into law the military’s self-imposed 1994 guidelines on women in combat, and would have prevented the services from changing the duties women can perform without congressional approval.

The revised language was approved 428-1.

But the opponents of the more restrictive provisions still attacked the advocates for sending the wrong message to the nearly 10,000 military women facing danger in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif. (Walnut Creek), said that while the new provision was “an improvement over the horrendous language” Hunter initially inserted, “this situation is like the schoolyard bully taking your lunch money, getting caught, giving you half back, and then asking you to thank him for it.”

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the only women veteran in Congress, said the earlier language “was unnecessary and not helpful.”

“In the history of this country, there has never been a law restricting the role of women in the military and there won’t be one now,” Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate, said.

The restrictive language had been inserted into the defense bill in Hunter’s committee last week, replacing an earlier measure that would have forced the Army to remove women from small support units attached to combat brigades in the 3rd Infantry Division, now in Iraq.

Both provisions were approved with only Republican votes and were attacked by the Democrats on the committee because they would restrict service women’s opportunities and the military’s ability to respond to changing conditions.

The Democrats and other observers also noted that the irregular conflict in Iraq has blurred the distinction between direct combat and support roles.

Women are manning checkpoints, guarding convoys and getting into fire fights while serving in supposedly noncombat jobs such as military police, truck drivers and civil affairs specialists. Thirty-five military women have been killed in combat in Iraq and scores have been wounded.

The Army, which would have been most affected by both provisions, also objected, arguing that it was complying with the ban on women in ground combat.

Hunter dropped the second attempt to restrict women in combat after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed his opposition.

In presenting his latest amendment Wednesday, Hunter called it “an excellent provision” that says the Congress, which has the constitutional role of regulating the military, has “injected ourselves into any change of this long-standing DoD (Department of Defense) policy” that excludes women from direct ground combat.

If women are going to be sent into ground combat, Congress should decide, Hunter said.