AFTER the Gulf war ended in 1991, the United States Congress authorized the military to allow women to fly in combat planes.
The vote came in recognition of the service rendered by 35,000 women who took part in that campaign and in recognition of a glass ceiling that career servicewomen face because they are blocked from holding combat assignments.
Adm. Frank Kelso Jr., chief of naval operations, is proposing to take Congress's idea one better by phasing in over the next four years a plan to open virtually all of the Navy's roles, including combat posts, to women. These postings would include submarines, as well as surface ships and fighter aircraft.
If Defense Secretary Les Aspin and President Clinton approve the plan, it would place the Navy in the lead among the uniformed services in opening career opportunities to women.
In offering the proposal, the Navy also is following up on recommendations by one of its own commissions that last year called for opening combat assignments to women.
Public opinion is fairly evenly divided on the question of whether it accepts the notion of women in combat roles. Yet a majority does favor giving women the right to volunteer for combat roles, as long as women aren't compelled to take them.
The process that led to the Navy's proposal has been under way for some time. Publicizing the Navy's intent at this time, however, raises questions.
The Navy is said to be close to releasing recommendations coming out of investigations into the 1991 Tailhook Association meeting, at which several women, including naval officers, were assaulted as they were forced to run a "gantlet" of male Navy and Marine aviators.
Expanding the roles of women in the Navy opens real opportunities for them. However, such a shift should not be allowed to distract attention from the need to treat women with dignity regardless of rank or posting.