Monday, May 16, 2005

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter took the extraordinary step of bucking the Pentagon on a major issue, after he failed to convince senior defense officials to change an Army policy on women in combat.

The California Republican has been a staunch ally of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the armed forces on nearly every aspect of how they fight the war against Islamic terrorists.

But when it came to women in combat, an important issue to cultural conservatives, he broke with the Pentagon last week and sided with the Republican party’s base.

Mr. Hunter put before the Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel an amendment to the 2006 defense authorization bill. The amendment would bar women from serving in Army forward support companies (FSCs) that embed, or collocate, with ground combat units.

The amendment passed on a party-line vote and will be taken up by the full Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Mr. Hunter’s decision to take on the Pentagon came after he had a series of discussions with Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff and Army Secretary Francis Harvey, but he failed to convince them the Army was violating the current collocation rule.

“The nation should not put women into the front lines of combat,” Mr. Hunter said. “In my judgment, we will cross that line soon unless we make policy decisions as we design the new Army.”

Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, has worked behind the scenes to get the Army to change its position — to no avail. She applauded Mr. Hunter’s action.

“I am surprised Mr. Rumsfeld and the Army are not supporting Duncan Hunter since he is merely codifying what is in current Pentagon policy,” Mrs. Donnelly said. “Legislation is needed because the Army has presumed to change the language of the collocation rule” without notifying Congress, as required by law.

The issue has been boiling since last year, when the Army redesigned combat brigades into lighter “units of action.” The Army describes them as modular units that deploy and fight with support units in tow. The 3rd Infantry Division now in Iraq is the first division to fight with units of action and has 13 FSCs.

However, Pentagon policy bars women from serving in FSCs that routinely collocate with units assigned to ground combat roles. The Army itself describes the FSC role as “to provide direct and habitual combat service support to itself and the maneuver/fires/armed reconnaissance battalion.”

The Army, critics say, has moved to get around the rule by rewriting it without Congress’ approval. An internal Army memo previously reported by The Washington Times states that FSCs are only barred from combat units when they are “conducting” actual combat. This, Mrs. Donnelly said, directly conflicts with current rules.

Larry Di Rita, spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld, said the secretary “is aware of the issue” but “it is not an issue he has delved into a lot.”

Mr. Di Rita said Mr. Rumsfeld “understands it’s important for the Army to make sure lawmakers understand what they are doing to adhere to the existing policy.”

He added, “Obviously, the nature of the battlefield is a complicated one these days.”

Critics say the new Army policy is subjecting women to increased danger. More than 60 female personnel have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion as the Army fights an enemy that attacks at any time and place.

“Forward support companies go forward into battle. That is why they are labeled ‘forward’ support companies,” said Mr. Hunter, who believes the current mixed-sex FSCs should revert to all-male. “The American people have never wanted to have women in combat and this reaffirms that policy.”

Both the Army and subcommittee Democrats criticized Mr. Hunter’s amendment.

“This amendment sends a bad message to all who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat. “There has been no support on this issue from Army Chief of Staff [Gen. Peter Schoomaker]. I’m deeply concerned by ramifications of this amendment and alarmed by its rushed consideration.”

Once word of the amendment reached the Pentagon, Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, dispatched a letter of protest for use by Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat.

“The proposed amendment will cause confusion in the ranks and will send the wrong signal to the brave young men and women fighting the global war on terrorism,” Gen. Cody wrote. “This is not the time to create such confusion.”

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