- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

From combined dispatches

DUELMEN, Germany After winning a long campaign for the right to serve as soldiers, hardly any women have actually applied to join the German army.

The German military opened up its combat units to women for the first time yesterday, accepting 244 female recruits who previously would have been relegated to medical or musical regiments.

The move toward an equal opportunity army comes less than a year after the European Court in Luxembourg ruled that German laws restricting women from the armed forces violated European Union laws against sexual discrimination.

But estimates of the number of female applicants who would be drawn up by the army's administration proved overly optimistic.

The Bundeswehr's higher command had planned on 15,000 women enlisting after the selection process was opened to both sexes, the London Daily Telegraph reported. This would have meant an army with a mix of 92 percent men and 8 percent women.

But since parliament changed the law in October, making it possible for women to serve in tank battalions, as fighter pilots or on submarines, only around 1,900 women have applied to join the German armed forces either as commissioned or noncommissioned officers.

In the United States, a 1997 survey by the Rand Corp. found that a large majority of military women did not believe they should be treated like men and serve in ground combat, The Washington Times reported.

The survey by Rand, an influential think tank used by the Pentagon to study a wide range of military issues, was based on responses from 934 men and women, officers as well as enlisted members.

Only 10 percent of female privates and corporals of those surveyed agreed to the statement: "I think that women should be treated exactly like men and serve in the combat arms just like men." Less than one-quarter of midgrade sergeants answered yes.

The highest-ranking female enlisted personnel, such as Navy chief petty officers and Army master sergeants, were split evenly on the question of ordering women into ground combat. Just more than 40 percent of female officers agreed, while just 17 percent said they were happy with regulations that exclude them from combat, the survey found.

Sixty-three percent of male officers thought the ban should stay in place, with only 22 percent saying women should be treated like men in serving in combat, according to the Rand poll. The armed forces opened more than 250,000 positions to women in 1994. Today, more than 80 percent of all military job descriptions are open to them.

Germany long had opposed allowing women into its front-line combat forces. Even in the last days of World War II, as it called up elderly men and boys in a desperate effort to stave off defeat, the Nazi leadership refused to draft women.

It changed its policy after one woman sued and won a European Court decision last January for the right to serve in combat forces.

The step brings Germany's military in line with other NATO members, including France, Britain and the United States, though some countries still keep women out of ground battles and submarine crews.

Yesterday, 151 women reported for duty in the army, 76 in the air force and 17 in the navy for the first time, facing the same basic training as male peers. They also bear the added stress of being the first group to break the mold of traditional German thinking that women should not be called on to fight for their country.

"Basic training will certainly be a difficult job, but that's why I'm here," said Aysun Yazici, 18, reporting for duty at Duelmener Barracks in northwestern Germany.

The European court ruling was brought about by Tanja Kreil, an electronics engineer who was refused an army job working on weapons systems in 1996 because she was a woman.

Despite the verdict, Miss Kreil withdrew her application over the summer without explanation.

But other women signed up. Silvia Siebenhar, 23, was working in a bakery, a job she felt lacked the challenge she was seeking. As she tried on her backpack at the barracks for the first time yesterday, she bent under the weight of it.

"It's really heavy," she said, then stood up straight and reminded herself why she was here. "You can help people, you'll be needed and can learn a lot. And I'm someone who needs action."

While military personnel have been going through extensive gender training to prepare for the transition, many Germans have yet to embrace the idea fully.

The country's leading weekly, Der Spiegel, ran a story on women joining the armed forces with the headline: "What to do when women cry?" The article debated whether female recruits should be required to cut their hair or allowed to wear jewelry.

Many conservatives also argue that the end of the Cold War and the shifting of roles to include peacekeeping and crisis management already have put the army here under stress, and that having female recruits only would worsen the situation.

Within the ranks, the men worried that the addition of women would raise job competition. According to Der Spiegel, every fifth male conscript questioned said the inclusion of women in the armed forces would threaten their jobs.

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