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US Military Women:  Too Close To Combat Zone?

Women make up nearly 15 percent of the total active force in the United States military. Over the years, they have eroded many barriers and are able today to serve in most positions, except in units that engage in ground combat. But, as the conflict in Iraq has shown, front lines may not always be clear. More than thirty American women have died and several hundred have been wounded. A new bill in the U-S Congress seeks to restrict the role of female troops in combat zones, which would affect more than 20-thousand women in service.

The capture and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq War and the involvement of Private Lynndie England in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal after the war renewed attention to America’s women in uniform. Chris Hanson, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, says the U-S media coverage of the women in service is usually unfair.

“Women in the military are shown to be either too vulnerable and too weak or somehow too strange and aberrant,” says Professor Hanson. He adds that too much focus on sex scandals, rape and other problems gives the impression that women hinder rather then contribute to the success of the armed forces.

Yet American military women have come a long way since World War Two when 150-thousand joined the Women’s Army Corps. According to Chris Hanson, these women were the first to serve in the U-S Army in posts other than nurses.

“When the draft ended in the early 1970s, the military needed person power. And they went out and started to recruit women and they opened up a lot of jobs to women that earlier had been closed to them in the military. So women ended up by now doing all kinds of specializations, many of them combat related, although they are still kept out of infantry, tanks and artillery,” says Profesor Hanson.

Until the Iraq War, scant public attention was paid to this progress. But the close-up television coverage of battlefields has drawn attention to the number of female soldiers. About 11-thousand U-S military women are serving in Iraq. More than thirty have died, mostly in or near combat zones.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a public policy organization specializing in military issues, says the U-S has never had so many female soldiers. “We know that many of them are married. They are mothers. Some of them are single mothers -– great numbers of them," says Ms Donnelly. "And we are sending them to fight our wars in a way that is unprecedented, not just in American history, but in history around the world.”

Ms Donnelly says a specially appointed presidential commission examined the issue of women serving in close combat in 1992 and found that their presence may hinder rather than improve troops’ readiness.

“Women are not as tall or as strong as men. They don’t have as much upper body strength as men do. So to put the load of body armor, for instance, on a female soldier, is a much greater load on her proportionately than it is on men. In every test that’s ever been done in Britain as well as the United States and in Israel, it has been found that the physical differences really do put women at a disadvantage, and it is unwise to have them, therefore, in land combat units.”

Elaine Donnelly notes the case for women in combat is based on the concept of equal opportunity, which is an important American value, but not applicable to the armed forces. “I can summarize a huge body of information by saying this simply: female soldiers do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers survive in a combat environment.,” she says.

Still, some countries, including the Netherlands, Canada and Denmark, have lifted all restrictions on women serving in the military. Chris Hanson says this may also happen in the United States.

“I think that the controversies now are what other types of jobs they’ll be allowed to have. Will women be allowed to be in the artillery, which requires less physical strength than being in the infantry? Will they be allowed to be in tanks, which in theory could be operated by someone with less physical strength just as an airplane can? I think special forces in the infantry are going be the toughest nuts to crack and they might never be cracked," says Professor Hanson.

When national security is at stake, most analysts agree that the need to maintain a strong military must take precedence over concerns about equal opportunity. But many also say women make U-S armed forces stronger, not weaker. The issue may finally be decided in Congress later this year.