Combat role for women confused

The Army chief of staff has raised the stakes in the debate over women in combat with an assertion that women are only barred from serving in support units assigned to infantry when such units are actually in combat.

This appears to contradict Army and Defense Department policy that specifies that women are not to be assigned to any support unit that is “embedded” with infantry likely to engage the enemy.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker spoke last week at a military forum at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in a speech on the future of the U.S. Army.

An Army spokesman said the Army is following all policies.

Opponents of assigning women to combat argue that moving support companies, which the Army calls Forward Support Companies, into units when they are fighting and withdrawing them when they are not fighting, is inefficient and dangerous for women, some of whom have been wounded and maimed in Iraq.

The debate is renewed as the Army is revamping its combat brigades into what it calls modular “units of actions.” To make this system work, skeptics and critics inside and outside the Army say the Army is “collocating,” or embedding, mixed-sex Forward Support Companies with infantry units contrary to policy. President Bush himself has said on several occasions, most recently in a January interview with reporters and editors of The Washington Times, that he opposes assigning women to combat.

If the Army acknowledges changing the policy — in fact if not in name — the Army would be required to seek congressional approval. The 3rd Infantry Division, which went to Iraq in January, is the first to deploy with such “units of action.”

Replying to a question at the forum, Gen. Schoomaker said the Army had “added” to the settled policy regarding women in combat. “First of all,” he said, “we have a policy, and an [Office of Secretary of Defense] policy, that says that we will not assign females to the infantry armor and Special Forces organizations that are trained, organized and equipped to routinely close with and destroy the enemy. And we have an Army policy that adds to that, not an [Office of Secretary of Defense] policy, but an Army [policy], that adds to that [that] says we will not collocate these women at the time that those units are undergoing those operations.”

The Army’s 1992 policy, to which Army Secretary Francis Harvey recently pledged his adherence, does not make such a distinction.

The policy sets out that the Army “allows women to serve in any officer or enlisted specialty or position except those in battalion-size or smaller units which are assigned a primary mission to engage in direct ground combat or which collocate routinely with units assigned a direct ground combat mission.”

The regulation does not say women can’t collocate with units that are “undergoing” combat operations, as Gen. Schoomaker put it. The regulation says they cannot serve with units that are “assigned a direct combat role.”

The general’s definition appears to reflect an internal Army “point paper” drafted on Jan. 23 to be submitted to Mr. Harvey. The point paper says that “Army policy (1992) further prohibits the assignment of women to positions or units which routinely collocate with those units conducting an assigned direct ground combat mission.”

The actual policy uses the word “assigned,” not “conducting.”

An Army spokesman, after examining a transcript of Gen. Schoomaker’s remarks and a reference to the 1992 law, said: “Simply put, the policy has not changed, nor are there any plans to change it. The deployed Army forces are in compliance.”

Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes women in combat, disagrees.

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