The religious right is pushing a change in military policy regarding the role of women in combat that has the potential to cripple our current military efforts in Iraq.
The change, which was written into the 2006 Defense Authorization Bill (search) by the full House Armed Services Committee on May 18, will be voted on by the full House in the very near future.
The change will prohibit female soldiers from being assigned to units involved in close combat support. This could prohibit women from driving trucks in convoys, serving as vehicle mechanics or working as MPs in the field. Estimates are that as many as 22,000 women would have to be reassigned if this became law.
This change in current policy is opposed by senior Army leadership and makes absolutely no sense for a variety of reasons.
First, the Army is already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan and has fallen short on its recruiting goals in recent months. Thus, at a time when the Army doesn't have enough soldiers, thousands of men would have to be reassigned to replace women currently serving in combat support roles. Where are these additional men going to come from? Is this the first stage of reinstating the draft to make sure that the Army has enough men in its ranks?
Secondly, women have served with great distinction and bravery in Iraq in a variety of key combat support roles. Women have always been banned from serving in the infantry, armor and special forces and no one is suggesting that be altered.
Third, Iraq is an asymmetrical battlefield, which means that any soldier could be in danger at any time no matter what his or her assignment may be. It is likely that future military operations by the United States elsewhere around the globe will be in similar situations.
Women have made great strides in the Army since the separate Woman's Army Corps (search) was eliminated in the mid-1970s and incorporated into the regular army. Woman have handled any job assigned to them and have risen through the ranks during the past 30 years, competing equally with men for promotions.
Barring women from combat in the support roles they have occupied in a variety of theaters of operations in recent years would be an enormous step backwards. It would make it much more difficult for women to hold senior positions when competing with men in their particular branches who had served in combat support roles. If Congress doesn't want women to become general officers, why doesn't it just say so? Why put impossible obstacles in their path?
This action by the House Armed Services Committee sends a terrible message to the young women in our country. Young women are every bit as patriotic as their male counterparts and have just as great a stake in protecting democracy and our way of life as young men do.
Our military has often led the way in tearing down the barriers in our society that prevent equality among its citizens. Integration of the Army preceded the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in 1954; women have enjoyed equal pay and equal opportunity for job promotion in our military at a time when women in the civilian sector have not always been as successful.
Now the House of Representatives is considering rolling back the clock in a way that insults our nation's women and would shortchange our military at a time when our armed forces are under enormous stress.
The vote in the House Armed Services Committee was reported in the press as falling along party lines, with the Republican majority pushing through this ill-advised change in military policy. Let's hope the full House of Representatives decides to reject this proposal on a bipartisan basis. It's time Congress started looking at the national interest rather than the narrow, reactionary vision of the religious right.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to Fox News Channel. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.