Military Veteran Calls Combat Support Ban Discriminatory, DangerousNOW Executive Vice President, Lt. Col. Karen L. Johnson, Criticizes Proposal
May 24, 2005
"A ban on assigning military women to forward support companies would be discriminatory, dangerous and regressive," said Karen Johnson, Executive Vice-President of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel.
In an effort that can only be described as false protectionism, Republicans members of the House Armed Services Committee, pushed a provision (Section 574) in the 2006 Defense Authorization bill (H.R. 1815) that would bar women from serving in "any unit below brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground…" After furious objections from the Pentagon and Army brass, the committee adopted a revised amendment. Unfortunately, that revision is not an improvement.
The revised amendment adopted by the committee incorporates language from a 1994 memorandum, written by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, into the federal statutes. A rule definition from the memorandum, which excludes women from assignment to forward areas "exposed to hostile fire" and with a "high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force's personnel," would then become federal law.
"NOW and other women's rights organizations have worked diligently for years to advance equal treatment for women in the military, and have made important gains," Johnson noted. "We do not want to see servicewomen pushed back and military readiness jeopardized - and neither do Army leaders."
In recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army has interpreted the memorandum to allow assignment of women to forward support companies; reportedly, some House Republican members differ on key definitions in the memo. More than 20,000 forward support and related positions in the Army currently open to women could be closed; with potentially many more thousands of positions in the other branches affected - though the full impact is not clear at this time.
Numerous press reports have called changes to the earlier amendment a "compromise," and suggested that the amended version represented a retreat from the original. On the contrary, the new version is even more far-reaching and detrimental to servicewomen, affecting not only women in the Army but the Air Force and the Navy as well. Further, the already out-of-date language of the 1994 Defense Department memorandum would be incorporated into federal law, removing discretion and flexibility from military commanders and giving Congress expanded powers.
The pending provision would have a far-reaching and long-term negative affect on women's ability to serve and give Congress a virtual veto over personnel decisions affecting women. Additionally, some military experts believe that not only does the provision turn back the clock to before the 1994 rule, but that it also fails to reflect the current reality of the battlefield where there are no clear battle lines and virtually all military personnel are exposed to hostile fire.
The proposed amendment would require the Pentagon to conduct a one-year study on the role of women in the Armed Forces, with particular attention to combat operations, and to notify Congress before opening any future positions to women. Until the report study is completed, the Secretary of Defense is urged to ensure that ongoing reorganization of the Army will "minimally expose" female members to direct ground combat.
In a May 19 press release, the Army called the proposed change unnecessary and likely to lead to confusion. The release defended the value of women in the military: "Like their male counterparts, women are an invaluable and essential part of the Army team."
NOW members and activists are being encouraged to contact their House members to urge them to oppose any provision that limits the positions available to servicewomen or which puts requires congressional approval to expand their options.
National policy already restricts women from direct ground combat, but their assistance in combat support units is essential. Requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress before opening any future positions to women would also constrain servicewomen's ability to achieve higher rank. Furthermore, little additional protection would be afforded to servicewomen under this ban as there are no clear cut frontlines in today's armed conflict situations.
According to the Washington Post, House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Chair Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), who sponsored an earlier version of the amendment, said that the effort was aimed at enforcing a "no women in combat" policy and denied that it is a "Neanderthal initiative to keep women out of the Army."
The offending measure was pushed through with no hearings about the performance of women in the military and with no prior notice - an abusive practice often exercised by the GOP leadership. Democrats in subcommittee and at the full committee level made numerous attempts to modify or kill the amendment.
Fortunately, a bipartisan amendment being promoted by New Mexico Representative and the House's only female veteran Heather Wilson (R), along with Reps. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), will be offered on the House floor to remove language that gives Congress more authority over which positions women can hold in the military. Democrats, by and large, are opposed to the prohibition on women serving in combat support positions.
For the more than 40,000 women who have served honorably in recent Middle East conflicts, their abilities, dedication and patriotism have been both questioned and compromised by the House conservatives' drive to segregate the military. If the U.S. is to have a military service, we must have the best people supporting that effort, regardless of sex.For Immediate Release
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