- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

The House Armed Services Committee yesterday backed away from ordering the Army to remove women from combat-support units, but instead insisted that the Army not put women in any new combat roles without specific authorization from Congress.

Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said the Army is violating a 1994 Pentagon directive that women not be put in combat by stationing female soldiers in forward support companies (FSCs) that embed, or collocate, with ground combat units.

Those companies are designed to play supporting roles, but committee Republicans said they often are put into combat situations.

Last week, at his urging, a subcommittee voted to prohibit the Army from assigning women to FSCs.

But yesterday Republicans said they had gone too far, and backed off that change.

“My opinion is, after a decade you can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” said Rep. John M. McHugh, New York Republican and chairman of the subcommittee that made the initial change.

Instead, by voice vote, the committee adopted the new policy that, Republicans said, allows the Army to continue assigning women to some support roles as it does now, but would require any military branch that wants to expand women’s combat role to ask for explicit approval from Congress.

Mr. McHugh said under the new policy adopted last night as part of the Defense authorization bill, Congress was “not removing a single woman from a single job.”

The committee also voted to have the Pentagon report next year on what positions are currently open to women.

“The facts are, the Army is confused. They are all over the place on this one, and this is an issue that lends itself to the judgment of this Congress,” Mr. Hunter said.

“It’s very good that we flushed the Army out on this issue,” the panel chairman said.

Mr. Hunter said the Army first said last week’s changes would only affect 21 women, then within 72 hours gave two other estimates. Earlier this week, the Army sent a letter to committee Democrats saying those changes would actually close 21,925 positions currently open to women.

The new proposal moves to the House floor, with debate expected for next week.

Democrats on the committee tried to force a study of women’s roles before the new policy takes effect.

“If this is just codification of current law, why … are we trying to do it?” said Rep. Vic Snyder, Arkansas Democrat.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the committee, said the amendment is premature and would hurt women serving in the military.

“You have women doing outstanding jobs all over the world,” Mr. Skelton said. “To raise this issue is untimely, and quite frankly, changing it [while at war] is an issue of national security.”

And Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat, said women in the military are unavoidably involved in combat situations.

“If that’s what America is so worried about, that you don’t want to see women killed, then maybe you should just make a law that there shouldn’t be any women in Iraq,” she said, pointing to women who have died far from the front lines in the current conflict.

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 reinterpreting 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.

So far, 34 female soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

• Brian DeBose and Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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