How Great a Role Should Women Play in Combat?

At Ft. Devens, mixed views on whether women are up to task

AS women take on higher-level positions in the United States military, the issue of how much they should participate in combat will come under scrutiny in the months ahead.

Last April, US Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered the military to let women fly combat aircraft and serve aboard naval warships. And this month, the outgoing Secretary Aspin announced a less restrictive ground-combat policy that would open up thousands of new jobs for women in the Army and Marine Corps.

While the Marine Corps would not comment on numbers of new openings for women, Army officials anticipate 7,000 active positions, 1,000 in the reserves, and 10,000 in the National Guard. The jobs could include pilots, engineers, those in maintenance, the military police, military intelligence, and other combat-support areas.

Specifically, Aspin will rescind the ``risk rule'' that barred women from certain combat-support jobs if the risk they involved was as great as serving in the combat units themselves.

Under the new policy, women are still prevented from serving in ground combat. But they can only be barred from serving in units: engaged with an enemy on the ground with weapons, exposed to hostile fire, or having a high probability of direct physical contact with the enemy. Army and Marines officials will propose to the defense secretary by May 1 which new jobs would stay closed to women.

The issue of equal treatment of women in the military has been highlighted by the recent controversy at The Citadel, an all-male publicly financed military institution in Charleston, S.C., that refused to accept a student because she is female. Shannon Faulkner, the student, sued the school and has now been allowed to attend classes pending a federal court trial next month.

With new opportunities for women to serve in combat-related roles, military specialists and soldiers know change is coming. Here at the soon-to-be-closed Fort Devens Army base, soldiers had widely varying views on new military roles for women.

Sgt. John Hunter, a signal support system specialist, says society is not prepared for women to serve on the front lines or be taken as prisoners, though this happened in the Gulf war. ``I don't think the American public is ready to accept the possibility of the atrocities that could happen to women,'' he says.

But Capt. Donald Wood, chief instructor of military intelligence here, says women should be allowed to serve in combat if properly trained and suited for the job. ``We've always had women doing jobs that men do,'' he says. ``Soldiers are soldiers, and as long as they do their job, that's all I care about.''

Sgt. Thomas Prigmore, an electronic-maintenance specialist, is not worried about the performance of women in combat but instead about how their presence, say, in a foxhole could affect men's behavior. ``Most of the time is waiting. And that's going to bring nothing but problems.''

Sgt. Kevin Bloom offers another reason why he thinks women aren't ready to take on these new roles. ``Personally, I don't think they are as emotionally sound.... They wouldn't be able to handle the stress level of ... combat roles,'' he says.

But Staff Sgt. Pamela Corso, who served six months in the Gulf war in 1990 and 1991, believes a woman should be allowed to do any job she wants in the military. ``If a woman feels she could handle something, then she should be allowed to go for it.''

Capt. Christi Pappas, an Army chaplain who recently returned from Somalia, offers a different view. While women are, at times, victims of sexual harassment in the military, they are taking on more military leadership roles than ever before, she says. Nevertheless, she predicts that they won't be eager to jump into full combat roles any time soon. ``I think there are women that want to be there, but my gut says the majority will say `no' because of the physical limitations,'' she adds.

Cpl. Joseph Edwards, an administrative clerk, says he believes women should be able to fulfill more new roles involving combat. ``I don't see a problem with it,'' he says. ``It all depends on the individual and how they feel about taking on that responsibility.''

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