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Commission urges women be allowed in combat arms

WASHINGTON — A report released to the president and Congress March 7 recommends 20 changes in the way the military facilitates diversity, and suggests gender barriers be lifted on all career fields.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, established under the National Defense Authorization Act, is a group of 31 active-duty and retired officers, enlisted personnel and senior executives from major corporations. The commission is recommending the DoD eliminate its combat-exclusion policies, which bar women from combat-arms specialties and from assignment in units battalion-size or smaller that have a routine mission to engage in direct combat.

According to the report, the commission would like the military to immediately allow women to be assigned to any unit requiring their military occupation and take steps to open up career fields traditionally not available to women, including combat arms. Several of the changes would need a congressional vote; others can be implemented at the level of the secretary of defense. Sgt. Amanda Solitario, 304th Public Affairs Detachment, said she doesn’t agree with the idea of women serving on the front lines.

Solitario, who on one occasion in Iraq in 2007 was the only female Soldier traveling with an all-male Infantry unit, said the Infantrymen warmed up to her, though they were stand-offish at first, but sleeping in a room full of men with no privacy to change her clothes or use the bathroom was uncomfortable.

Her main concern is that women would slow the men down in training, and in a combat situation, men might be more worried about protecting female Soldiers than their mission.

“There are separate standards so how can you ask to put a female in an all-male unit?” Solitario said, pointing out the differences in scoring for the Army Physical Fitness Test.

Conversely, Staff Sgt. Genevieve Chase, a military intelligence Soldier and founder of American Women Veterans, thinks women should be allowed to join combat-arms units without altering standards to cater to women.

“We serve in normal society as equals now,” said Chase, a military intelligence specialist who speaks fluent Pashtu and has often been the only woman in a group of male Soldiers.

Her experiences with otherwise all-male units have been good ones, she said, and she’d like to see all jobs opened up to women — if they can keep up. Chase said she knows some female Soldiers as physically fit as their male counterparts, so they should have an equal shot at any career path they choose

She also wants to see more acknowledgement for female service members killed in combat, which is part of the reason she started American Women Veterans. Chase said American society largely ignores the fact that more than 140 female service members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and women are already unofficially serving in combat-arms positions in jobs like military police.

Overall, she said she supports what MLDC is trying to accomplish, but said the hardest thing to change will be the culture of the military.

“The commission envisions expanding opportunities while maintaining the military’s high standards,” said retired Gen. Lester Lyles, chairman of the commission. “This could be done by removing barriers that are unrelated to doing the job, such as barriers related to the individual’s demographic membership, rather than their ability.”

To see a copy of the report, go to http://mldc.whs.mil.

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