A 1994 combat exclusion policy bans women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops and is made up of battalions, which can be about 800 soldiers.
So while a woman serving as a communications or intelligence officer can be formally assigned to a brigade, she can’t be assigned to the smaller battalion. The military has gotten around those rules by “attaching” women in those jobs to battalions, which meant they could do the work but not get the credit for being in combat arms.
And since service in combat gives troops an advantage for promotions and job opportunities, it has been more difficult for women to move to the higher ranks.
While the new rules won’t open up the Navy SEALs or the Army Delta Force to women, some defense officials have said the military eventually may be open to that. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told North Carolina ROTC students in 2010 that at some point there would be careful steps in that direction.
Already, however, women are serving with special operations forces in support jobs such as intelligence analysts, legal specialists, builders and administration assistants.
In a new program gaining popularity in Afghanistan, women are serving on so-called cultural support teams that go out with commando units. The women on the teams are used to do things that would be awkward or impossible for their male teammates, such as talking to or frisking burqa-clad women.
Associated Press writers Mike Gracia and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.
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