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The Future of Women Serving in Combat Being Debated

In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to prohibit women in the military from serving in direct ground combat roles. The debate has put the spotlight on a controversial issue in American society, what the role of women in the U.S. military should be.

Amy Katz reports the legislation comes as female soldiers and marines in Iraq have become more and more involved in combat, in a war where there are no clear front lines.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the Army is working with its commanders to address concerns about women in combat. But he points out the current situation is unusual. Mr. Rumsfeld says, "It's an asymmetrical battlefield so there are not clear lines where battles are taking place on one side, and not the other."

The U.S. Army and Marines have both been using women in combat support roles since the start of the Iraq war. There are nearly 20,000 women currently serving in Iraq. Facing an unpredictable insurgency, more often than not, the women have become involved in combat. Dozens have been killed and hundreds more have been wounded.

Lieutenant General John Vines is the Commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq. He says, "There are no front lines here, so our forces have to ready to fight all the time, every single sailor, soldier, airman or marine.”

The role of women in the U.S. military is not just an issue being debated on the front lines or in Washington. It can also heard at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where classmates Chelsea Haviland and Jesse Sladek have differing opinions. Chelsea wonders why she is being trained at West Point, if she will never be able to use the skills she's learned.

"In my eyes, God created everyone equal, regardless of gender. If you're a female and you chose to be in the Army, you chose to put yourself in harm's way. Why separate men and women?" asks Chelsea.

Jesse, her classmate, says he thinks women are just as capable as men. But he's not sure they should be on the battlefield.

"I'd be more distraught and hurt if I saw Chelsea or any, if I saw a woman get blown up or hurt or injured, than I would be if it happened to a man. And I don't think that's just me. I think it's that men can be much more likely to respond to a woman being hurt than a man. And I think because of that it would make missions hard to accomplish," says Jesse.

"I think there's enough hostility towards the separation of gender in general, in the army. I think a lot of males still have that same perspective of, ' women aren't capable.' So, the second you limit women on the front lines of combat, it enhances that division more," adds Chelsea.

Her friend Jesse says, "The truth is, she's right. She shouldn't be limited. But another truth is, men respond to women differently. And the bigger picture is that there's a potential that more people's lives could be at-risk, by having women in front lines units."

As future officers Chelsea and Jesse demonstrate, there are many opinions about the role of women in the military. In fact, a recent public opinion poll shows 45 percent of Americans favor women getting combat assignments, if they want them. About 16 percent said women should not be allowed in combat at all. The debate is sure to continue.