ECLECTIC RANT: A Woman's Place is in Combat Too

By Ralph E. Stone
Thursday December 20, 2012 - 09:57:00 AM

The ban on women in combat in ground combat units is one of the last vestiges of sexism. Under the guise of protecting the "weaker" or "fairer" sex, the armed forces discriminate against women by deniying them the perks of serving in combat positions. 

Women constitute 14 percent of active duty personnel. They are prevented from serving in more than 238,000 positions, including all infantry positions, are excluded from some training schools, and their chances for promotion and veterans' benefits are limited. Yet, 85 percent of female personnel deployed after September 11, 2011 were sent to a combat zone and many were involved in combat operations. Let's face it, there are no front lines and few safe places in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

In Rostker v. Goldberg, 453 U.S. 57 (1981), the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the male-only draft under the Military Selective Service Act and held "the Act's registration provisions do not violate the Fifth Amendment. Congress acted well within its constitutional authority to raise and regulate armies and navies when it authorized the registration of men and not women."  

Since the Rostker decision, sections 8539 and 6015, of title 10, U.S.C., which prohibited the assignment of women to aircraft engaged in combat and vessels engaged in combat (except aviation officers assigned as part of an air wing or other element) have been repealed. However, Section 652, of title 10, U.S.C., enacted after this repeal, makes it clear that Congress is the final decider as to whether women can serve in combat positions. 

Congress repealed the combat exclusion laws in the January 1994 National Defense Authorization Act, but requires the services to submit proposed changes to existing assignment policy to Congress for review.  

However, pursuant to a Department of Defense (DoD) memorandum, dated January 13, 1994, women are still restricted from assignment to units below the battalion level whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat.  

Congress established the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC) as part of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act. The commission's task was to evaluate and assess policies that provide opportunities for promotion and advancement of minority members of the armed forces. On March 15, 2011, the MLDC recommended that the prohibition on women serving in combat roles be removed using a "time-phased approach."  

In its February 2012, report to Congress, following the MLDC recommendation, the DoD recommended that: "Eliminate the co-location exclusion from the 1994 [DoD] policy." However, the report cautioned that "changes to DoD’s policies will require time to implement fully. There are serious practical barriers, which if not approached in a deliberate manner, could adversely impact the health of our Service members and degrade mission accomplishment. Change of this magnitude requires sufficient time and resources." 

In the past few years, a number of lawsuits have been filed arguing implicitly that the DoD is dragging its feet on opening up combat positions to women. And that excluding women from combat positions and other positions solely on the basis of sex violates the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For example, in Hegar v. Panetta, plaintiffs Major Mary Hegar, served in the U.S. Air Force and her aircraft was shot down in Afghanistan; Captain Zoe Bedell, a Marine Corps officer served twice in Afghanistan; First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, a Marine Corps officer, served in Afghanistan; and Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hund, U.S. Army Reserves, served both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each was disadvantaged because, although they served in combat zones, were unable to serve officially in combat jobs. See the full profile of these plaintiffs.  

Why is the DoD taking so long to open up combat positions to women? Other countries have done so with little or no difficulty. A 2010 survey by the British Ministry of Defense listed Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Sweden as countries that allow women in "close combat roles," defined as "engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile forces personnel." Australia joined the list in September 2011 when it opened its front-line units — including one of the largest contingents in Afghanistan — to women. 

Today, military service is voluntary. Both men and women who join the military should be able to choose a combat job. The criteria for selection to a combat job should not be based on a person's sex but whether the person is qualified, capable, competent, and able to perform the job. Nothing more, nothing less. When a woman is properly trained, she can be as tough as any man.