- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division is scheduled to head to Iraq next month to bolster security before the Jan. 30 elections. When they leave, they could be the first division that deploys mixed-sex units near all-male combat units. The reorganization is part of Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker’s plan to change the basic combat brigade into self-contained “units of action” that train and deploy with their support teams. The mixed-sex units, known as Forward Support Companies, would be on the ground near fighting, but not actively involved in combat.

As Rowan Scarborough has reported, the redesign has created a stir inside the Pentagon, as well as among civilian defense organizations, as some allege that “collocating” mixed-sex units with combat units violates a ban imposed in 1994. While the Army admits that it has considered altering the ban, it says the current proposal allows forward support units to collocate only with brigade-support battalions, which are not considered combat units. The Army also notes that the roles women would be performing would not be much different than the ones they perform now in other support units. It should be emphasized that this new method would not permit women to take on direct combat duties. What it does do is increase the risk to female soldiers performing their traditional combat support duties.

Those crying foul see a degree of political correctness sneaking into the one government department that should resist such pressure. While it is true that in the past the armed forces have not been immune to such tinkering, the Army’s current reorganization doesn’t seem to be one of those cases. In May, an internal Army briefing paper set forth a sober analysis of its current personnel problems: “Army manpower cannot support elimination of female soldiers from all units designated to be units of action elements,” the document states. In other words, for the Army to go forward with Gen. Schoomaker’s transformation plan, it would not have enough male personnel to fill out the forward support units. The paper further states, all-male FSCs “creates potential long-term challenges to Army; pool of recruits too small to sustain force.”

As Mr. Scarborough has reported, some inside the Pentagon see the proposal as “skirting” the existing 1994 ban, if not violating it. That very well could be the case. Events in Iraq have shown that insurgencies do not operate on a front, thereby removing the safety support brigades enjoy being “behind the line.” Placing mixed-sex forward units with support brigades could endanger more female soldiers than would otherwise be the case.

Even so, it would be far more detrimental to the Army’s transformation objectives to deplete other units, possibly combat units, of needed manpower. To secure the highly mobile, self-contained fighting units Gen. Schoomaker envisions, combat units must be in close contact with support brigades. Allowing women to serve in such support units might not be the best alternative, yet until the Army increases its retention and recruitment it seems to be the only available one.

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