For the past decade women in the U.S. military have served, fought and died on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Pentagon rules will catch up a bit with reality, recommending to Congress that women be allowed to serve in more jobs closer to the front lines.
According to defense officials, the new rules are expected to continue the long-held prohibition that prevents women from serving as infantry, armor and special operations forces. But they will formally allow women to serve in other jobs at the battalion level, which until now had been considered too close to combat.
In reality, however, the necessity of war has already propelled women to the front lines — often as medics, military police or intelligence officers. So, while they couldn’t be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion or company going out on patrol, they could fly the helicopter supporting the unit, or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured.
The officials said the new rules will change that, and formally allow women to be assigned to a battalion and serve in jobs such as medics, intelligence, police or communications officers. The changes would have the greatest effect on the Army and Marine Corps, which ban women from more jobs than the Navy and Air Force do — largely because of the infantry positions.
Defense officials spoke about the report on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been publicly released.
There long has been opposition to putting women in combat, questioning whether they have the necessary strength and stamina, or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion. There also have been suggestions that the American public would not tolerate large numbers of women coming home from war in body bags.
But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battlefield lines are scattered and blurred and insurgents can be around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat. Thousands have served in the two wars, and more than 150 have been killed.
The Pentagon report, which initially was due out last spring, comes nearly a year after an independent panel called for the military to lift its ban on women in combat. The Military Leadership Diversity Commission said the Pentagon should phase in additional career fields and units that women could be assigned to as long as they are qualified.
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 may eventually be open to that also. Former Defense Secretary Robert 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.
And 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 talk to or even frisk burqa-clad women.