- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

When the Pentagon's advisory committee on women wrapped up its fall conference during the height of the Vietnam War, its list of recommendations seemed modest by today's feminist standards.

"When more practicable," the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) politely wrote in 1968, "use a color guard composed of both men and women." The panel also urged the Defense Department to allow the "husbands of military women" to frequent commissaries and to offer severance pay to women discharged because of pregnancy.

This week, as DACOWITS celebrates its 50th anniversary, a new generation of members, a large number of them academics or lawyers, are pressing the armed forces for far more. Not only do they want to improve a woman's quality of life, they also want the generals and admirals to redesign how troops are used in battle: Put simply, DACOWITS wants more women put in harm's way, and with it, all the career opportunities that go with being a combat veteran.

"It's a committee that has an extreme agenda," says Elaine Donnelly, who served on DACOWITS under President Reagan and became the group's most persistent critic in the Clinton era. "They are accountable to no one. They certainly do not represent the majority of military women." Indeed, independent surveys have shown that large majorities of women in uniform do not want combat slots.

The Pentagon defends the 34-member board. Asked to respond to criticism that DACOWITS has become a "feminist tool," the Pentagon issued this statement:

"The members of DACOWITS devote personal time and resources to meet with service men and women around the world and hear their concerns about matters related to their work, their living environment, their opportunities for advancement, and their quality of life. These are important matters contributing to retention and morale, and a vital part of sustaining this quality force that maintains our national security. The DACOWITS advice to the secretary of defense is one way that the concerns of the force become known and considered by the Department's leadership in the creation of programs and policies."

Since that statement was released, conservatives have pressed new Bush appointees to abolish DACOWITS, or replace it with a new panel with a different focus. Last week, the Pentagon for the first time in DACOWITS' five-decade history declined to automatically renew a two-year operating charter when it expired at midnight on Thursday.

Charter changes

Instead, a small group of Defense Department civilians are rewriting the charter that "we believe will enhance the role and the effectiveness of the committee while broadening its focus." Officials decline to discuss what the new document, which could be released this week, will say, nor will they say whether DACOWITS will be replaced by a new type of committee.

The Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group that backs abolition of the panel, "praised the Pentagon leadership for the decision to create a new charter." "It is important to put military readiness before social engineering," IWF President Nancy M. Pfotenhauer says.

As the charter deadline loomed, Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican and a former DACOWITS member, requested a meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The former Air Force officer told him she would fight any move to either terminate the panel or alter its mandate. "As a veteran myself, I know that women in the military need opportunities to express concerns without fear of reprisal from their chain of command," Mrs. Wilson says.

The debate over DACOWITS' future follows a decade of cutting-edge recommendations that please feminists but irritate some pro-military groups.

After President Clinton decided in 1994 to put women on combat ships and aircraft, DACOWITS demanded that women be put closer to combat. It wants women assigned to submarines and to special-operations helicopters two fields exempt from the 1994 change. The panel further wants the Army to bend the land combat line by allowing women to operate multiple rocket launchers.

Long-term arguments

The committee, by delving into questions of how soldiers are positioned in today's warfare, seems to be preparing for the long-term arguments for assigning women to ground combat units. When the services balk, their representatives are questioned closely by DACOWITS members striving for complete equality of the sexes even when others warn that land combat is not an equal-opportunity matter and that putting women in combat units risks the lives of everyone.

DACOWITS' aggressive lobbying the past decade has attracted critics who charge that a committee authorized in 1951 by Defense Secretary George C. Marshall has evolved into a tool of career female officers who want all combat barriers lifted despite opposition from four-star generals and admirals.

Other groups, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation, want DACOWITS abolished.

"My thought is DACOWITS has outlived its usefulness," says Jack Spencer, a Heritage military analyst. "The DACOWITS was originally brought on after the Korean War to help with the integration of women in the military. Over the years, it has largely transformed into an organization that is used primarily to advance the feminist agenda, and therein lies the problem.

"Its recommendations are based more on career advancement than they are on national security," he says. "Its recommendations routinely counter studies and other reports that look at issues purely from a national-security perspective."

One example, critics say, is the issue of the Navy's new Virginia-class submarine. DACOWITS wants the developing ship redesigned for women, despite Navy objections that such rearranging will reduce space for combat systems.

According to DACOWITS, "Current experience indicates it is unreasonable to presume that women will not be assigned to submarines sometime in the next 40 years. … Redesign now before this submarine class begins full production will avoid even more costly reconfiguration in the future."

The Navy, however, held its ground. A Navy memorandum obtained by The Washington Times stated that a redesign "would have two negative effects: further degrade habitability for both [sexes] and require removal of operational equipment reducing warfighting effectiveness."

Unlikely move

Political analysts regard abolishing DACOWITS without a replacement as an unlikely move for a Republican president bent on increasing his share of the women's vote. In fact, when DACOWITS feted itself last April at a 50th birthday party, President Bush's pick as the Pentagon's No. 2 man, Mr. Wolfowitz, praised the group as an "outstanding organization."

"I look forward to the advice that will come from your conference here this week," he told the celebrants. He called he committee's work "practical and sensible advice that cuts to the heart of issues as it considers the overall good of the armed forces."

DACOWITS' 34 members, now 32 women and two men, typically serve a single three-year term, meaning all are now Clinton appointees. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has delayed appointing his first members while the charter review is under way.

Mrs. Donnelly says it's not the membership, but the military officers surrounding the panel who drive the campaign to put women in combat.

"The institution is the problem. Regardless of which administration is making appointments, the agenda remains the same," says Mrs. Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes women in combat. "It's not a partisan thing. It's the agenda that goes forward no matter what.

"It's the staff primarily. They both include and are led by very ambitious female officers. They draft the recommendations. I know this as a former member of DACOWITS. That's just they way the institution works."

Indeed, DACOWITS' votes on recommendations, including the ones to put women in combat, are typically unanimous. DACOWITS now is staffed by six military officers and aided by another 31 representatives from each service. Of the 37, 25 are women.

DACOWITS Chairman Vickie L. McCall, a real estate saleswoman and member of the Utah Alcohol and Beverage Control Commission, said through a spokeswoman that she was unavailable for comment. Barbara Brehm, a retired Navy captain who was a Navy "milrep," or military representative to DACOWITS and at one time its military director, disputed the assertion that the female staffers unduly influenced the committee.

"The staff is not allowed to push issues," Capt. Brehm says. "Their function is to create an environment where the DACOWITS can do the work. … The milreps help to frame the discussion by inserting facts such as cost and policy and the legal requirements."

Capt. Brehm said male sailors, not women, in some cases were pushing for women on submarines. She said some male sailors thought it wasn't fair for one sex to escape long deployments under the sea.

"Many DACOWITS recommendations are grounded in very strong comments that come from the troops," she says.

Asked to respond to pro-military groups calling for the end of the panel, Capt. Brehm says, "DACOWITS has always been a useful conduit for information on how front-line basic troops see the world. When a senior DoD official or a general shows up, we military representatives want to put the best possible foot forward. But I find the DACOWITS members, because they go in as civilians, some of them from nearby towns, I find American troops are wonderfully forthcoming to them. They really do tell the DACOWITS members how they see their world."

In fact, travel is a big part of a member's job. The Pentagon appoints members based in part on home state locations so a well-dispersed committee can travel more easily, at each member's own expense, to a variety of domestic military facilities.

The panel's executive committee travels at government expense to foreign bases. The entire committee meets twice a year at spring and fall conferences to hear testimony and vote on recommendations.

DACOWITS operates on a $240,000 annual operating budget, but costs the Pentagon about $850,000 yearly when service contributions are counted. The four branches, after consultation with members of Congress, submit candidates to the secretary of defense. The White House reviews the list before the defense secretary makes the official appointments, usually in the fall.

'Bipartisan' panel

Lt. Col. James Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman, characterized the committee as "bipartisan across the board."

Few of the current members served in the military. Of the 34, the two male panelists and two of the women are veterans. In all, there are 10 academics, eight lawyers, two clinical psychologists, a clinical social worker, six business executives, four consultants, one TV reporter, a teaching nurse and a state senator.

Members routinely file trip reports that are passed on to the Pentagon's military and civilian leaders. One 1999 report raised eyebrows within the tradition-oriented Marine Corps. It quoted Marine women as saying they could not find maternity clothes in their sizes and thus could not stand in formation. A Corps spokesman apologized, saying the attire was back-ordered.

It is not the trip reports that rankles conservatives. It is the committee's push to put women in more combat jobs, even after the services repeatedly say no.

Last year, the committee voted unanimously to urge the Navy to assign female officers to large ballistic missile submarines where, it argued, more living space was available to separate the sexes. Critics saw it as preliminary to one day persuading the Navy, or an agreeable president, to open the entire underwater fleet to women.

The Navy repeatedly has told DACOWITS that the close confines of a sub and the costs of creating separating berthing preclude mixed-sex submarines.

Likewise, in the 1990s, the committee voted to urge the Army to open some artillery posts to women despite the Army's argument that it would put women too close to land combat.

"The one thing left on the agenda is land combat," Mrs. Donnelly says. "Pushing incrementally with multiple launch rocket systems, if you take that step, there is no way the other associated land systems can remain off-limits."

DACOWITS has not stopped there. Its has told U.S. Special Operations Command it wants its helicopters like the ones operating in Afghanistan open to female aviators just like Army combat choppers now are guided by women.

"There is insufficient evidence that special operations forces rotary wing aviation crews 'collocate' with units involved in direct ground combat," the committee said its unanimous recommendation.

Position rejected

As in other combat issues, the military has said "no" several times. In this case, Gen. Charles R. Holland, the top officer in the military's special operations forces (SOF) bluntly rejected the committee's position.

"The command does not concur with the conclusions of DACOWITS," Gen. Holland wrote. Special forces' "rotary wing aviation crews are doctrinally required to collocate with ground combat units during many SOF mission profiles. … Direct action has always been a primary mission of SOF, and contrary to the DACOWITS assertion, involves direct ground combat."

While the committee votes to open more combat jobs, it is also making inquiries that lead Mrs. Donnelly and other conservatives to suspect that its long-range strategy envisions women in ground combat alongside men.

For example, DACOWITS has asked the Pentagon to justify its definition of direct ground combat, which dictates where women can and cannot serve. But here, too, the military is standing its ground. The Pentagon recently told the committee in a written reply that "there is public reluctance for women to be in positions involving direct (hand-to-hand) ground combat. Most women would not meet the physical qualifications for some rigorous career fields (Rangers, Seals, Special Forces) or the physical requirements for close-in, hand-to-hand combat in other career fields."

But Stephanie Gutman, author of the book "The Kinder, Gentler Military," says military resistance to DACOWITS often has been tempered by public-relations concerns, although this increasingly will not be the case.

"In many cases, not wanting to oppose the DACOWITS too stridently wanting to avoid a battle that the press would probably spin as entrenched men vs. nobly struggling women the services have capitulated. And so the chipping continues.

"But as the DACOWITS gets closer to the core of the military machine ground combat troops (its raison d'etre) the opening process gets harder. The Army, for one, has begun to plant its heels," Miss Gutman wrote.

Capt. Brehm disagrees that DACOWITS is moving toward advocacy of women in land combat. "I did not hear that at the spring conference," she says. "No one advocated that at all."

The Heritage Foundation's Mr. Spencer says it is difficult politically to disagree with DACOWITS or call for its abolition because liberal feminists immediately brand such critics as "anti-women."

"If you're in uniform, that's very intimidating," he says. "You don't want to have that on your record. You don't want to have that in people's thoughts when they think about you."

An internal DACOWITS disagreement in 1994 may portend a more diverse voting record once Bush appointees arrive on the committee. Seven years ago, the chairman at the time wrote to the defense secretary saying the committee supported the Army secretary's proposal to put women in artillery units. But when word of the letter leaked, several committee members went public to say they had voted against an endorsement at an executive committee meeting. The 1994 panel was a mix of new Clinton appointees and holdovers from the George Bush administration.

How much influence DACOWITS wields within the armed forces is a subject of debate. A confluence of events the performance of women in the Gulf war and the election of Bill Clinton seemed to be the major factors in Congress lifting bans in 1994 on assigning women to combat ships and aircraft.

But on more mundane issues such as clothing and medical care, DACOWITS often points out problems not known up the chain of command of a military that is 86 percent male.

Capt. Brehm says one of the panel's biggest roles is members meeting with commanders after a field visit and telling them what the troops are saying. "That is a very useful bit of information for that front-line commander to keep a pulse on what's going on," she says.

This week, DACOWITS at 50, as it remembers a notable list of alumni that includes Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and actress Helen Hayes, worries about its future as it awaits the Pentagon's charter decision due out this week.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide