New Pentagon rules could put women closer to combat

Thu Feb 9, 2012 7:42pm EST
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By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon unveiled a new policy on Thursday that will expand job opportunities for women in the military but shift them closer to the fighting, rekindling the issue of women in combat.

The move is part of a Pentagon effort to begin eliminating some of the gender-based discrimination that has prevented greater diversity in the overall force. It came in response to recommendations a year ago from a Military Leadership Diversity Commission mandated by Congress.

Under the new rules, the Defense Department would continue to prohibit women from serving in infantry, armor and special operations units whose main function is to engage in front-line combat, defense officials said.

Asked why women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting security details and house-to-house searches were still formally being barred from combat positions, the officials said the services wanted to see how they performed in the new positions before opening up further.

"Secretary (Leon) Panetta believes that this is the beginning, not the end of a process," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told a briefing. "The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women."

The rule changes would allow women access to 14,000 jobs they had previously been barred from pursuing, from tank mechanics to rocket-launcher crew members. They would still be barred from 238,000 jobs, nearly a fifth of the total force, mainly infantry and special forces posts.

"But the good news is that 14,000 are being opened," said Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, who herself broke gender barriers in the 1970s when she was stationed in North Dakota - in a job that had been considered too cold for women.

Defense officials noted that 10 years of combat had made it clear that some of the military's gender-based restrictions were obsolete because the battlefields faced by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had no clear front lines and no obvious ways to limit exposure to the fighting.   Continued...

<p>Sgt. Audrey Johnsey (L) greets Sfc. Joshua Herbig (R) who she served with in Afghanistan, during the Welcome Home Heroes Parade in downtown St. Louis, Missouri January 28, 2012. REUTERS/Sarah Conard</p>