The Pentagon says that the role of women will be expanding in the months and years ahead.
U.S. Army Specialist Nicole Derk works on a helicopter at the beginning of her shift in Logar province, Afghanistan / Reuters
The Pentagon's new move to allow women to fill thousands of frontline jobs marks the second major shift in the makeup of the nation's armed forces in less than a year, underscoring the wide-ranging changes impacting the traditionally conservative institution.
Female troops have been informally serving alongside combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, and roughly 150 have been killed to date in the two war zones. The changes announced on Thursday will still bar them from serving in infantry units or elite forces like the Navy SEALs. But they will open up more than 14,000 other positions to women, making it easier for large numbers of women to serve as frontline medics, helicopter pilots, and intelligence analysts.
Bringing women closer to frontline combat roles isn't the only significant--and potentially controversial--recent change to the composition of the armed forces. Last year, the Pentagon eliminated the long-held "don't ask don't tell" provisions barring openly gay troops from serving in the military. Critics, including many Republican lawmakers, had warned that repealing the ban would harm military morale and cause internal dissension. But military officials now say that lifting the restrictions haven't caused any discipline problems or other issues.
The debate over where--and how--women should serve in the military has been raging for even longer than the fight over "don't ask don't tell." A 1994 restriction imposed by the Clinton administration bars women from being assigned to units below the brigade level (each brigade has 3,500-5,000 troops) or taking part in direct ground combat. Pentagon officials have defended the ban by arguing that it would be difficult to have women and men living in close quarters and that women wouldn't be able to handle the physical strains of front-line combat.
In practice, however, those restrictions fell away years ago on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The guerilla conflicts don't have fixed front-lines, which mean that women serving in support roles like logistics have frequently found themselves in firefights with insurgents. Female helicopters pilots fly troops into active battles and help evacuate the wounded. Female troops serve alongside small combat units to help defuse bombs, analyze intelligence gathered during raids, and treat wounded troops. Female troops are often at the wheel of Humvees in supply convoys on bomb-ridden roads.
More recently, specially trained female troops who pass rigorous physical tests have begun participating in Special Operations raids in Afghanistan as part of new "Cultural Support Teams." The teams are meant to help Army Ranger and Special Forces personnel tap local women for usable intelligence; male troops couldn't approach local women on their own because of cultural norms in Afghanistan.