WASHINGTON — A decade after the United States launched two wars that put women at the front lines of unconventional fighting, the Pentagon crept closer Thursday to formally allowing them to serve in combat by announcing an additional 14,000 combat-related jobs for female service members.
The changes are intended to acknowledge the role women play in today's wars and give them more chances to rise up the military ranks. Particularly affected will be the Army, the largest of the services, where the vast majority of combat-related roles currently are held by men.
However, women still won't be allowed to serve in special forces or infantries — the front-line fighting units — causing some advocates and service members to argue that the changes don't go far enough.
The policy change, which the Pentagon announced as part of a congressionally mandated review and is set to take effect in the spring, opens to women 13,139 positions in combat units — such as tank mechanic, artillery mechanic and crews on multiple-launch rocket systems.
In addition, the change opens 1,186 combat-related jobs — such as intelligence officers — to women at the battalion level, closer than they've been before to the fighting. Up until the changes, women under a 1994 policy could serve in such positions only at the brigade level of combat, usually farther from the front lines. A brigade consists of three to five battalions, or as many as 6,000 troops.
Until the change, women at the battalion level were limited to jobs considered in the rear of a formation — such as medics, logisticians, personnel and other support roles.
The policy shift acknowledges that in today's wars — where a battle line is no longer represented by thousands of troops marching toward enemy fire, but instead can be a sole armored vehicle traveling through a community — the threat of explosives, sniper attacks and firefights aren't limited to men. Anyone who leaves a base is exposed to combat.
According to Department of Defense statistics, by the end of 2011, 144 women were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, which represented 2 percent of the troop deaths in those wars. Another 865 were injured. Women accounted for 280,000 of the 2.3 million who served in the wars, or about 12 percent. Women make up 17 percent of the active Army and 7 percent of Marines.
In explaining its reasons for continuing to bar women from serving in infantry positions and special forces, the department said that it needed more time to study the issue, citing "the austere conditions and the physical demands of such operations."
More than 238,000 combat-related jobs remain closed to women, Principal Director for Military Personnel Policy Maj. Gen. Gary Patton told reporters at a briefing Thursday.
Indeed, the change wouldn't open women up to a draft, should one be instated, since they couldn't serve in the same way as men.
Critics said that the U.S. military is moving too slowly toward an inevitable change. Even Pentagon officials conceded it was an incremental step, suggesting that women will eventually be allowed in combat.
"To continue such a ban is to ignore the talents and leadership that women bring to the military, and it further penalizes servicewomen by denying them the opportunity for future promotions and assignments that are primarily given to personnel from combat arms specialties," Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and co-founder of the Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy group, said in a statement.
The change is intended to help women advance their careers, which has been made more difficult by their lack of combat experience. The report found that retention rates of women in the military after 20 years of service is significantly lower than that of their male counterparts. The Army didn't promote its first four-star female general, Gen. Ann Dunwoody, until 2008; she rose through the ranks as a logistician.
The role of women in the U.S. military evolved dramatically over the past decade. As the demand for troops grew, particularly during the war in Iraq, women undeniably served on the front lines. Their commanders maneuvered around the Pentagon rules by attaching units with women in them to combat battalions, where women could do the work but wouldn't receive combat decorations or other credit for being in combat.
The U.S. military lags behind many of its coalition partners in Afghanistan on this issue. Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy and Australia all allow women to serve in combat roles.
The changes have the least impact on the Navy and Air Force, where most jobs are open to women. The Air Force is now planning to promote its first female four-star general, Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger. Wolfenbarger also is a logistician.
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