Women in combat

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(Host) As the U.S. mobilizes for war with Iraq, commentator Bill Seamans says that more women than ever are preparing to take part in ground combat operations.

(Seamans) While we wait for Commander in Chief Bush to give the order to fire, there is a story involving thousands of our service persons that has somehow eluded the media attention it truly deserves: that is, how greatly the Army has expanded the role of women in ground combat operations since the Gulf War.

It did, however, catch the attention of the highly regarded commentary magazine, the Washington Monthly, which says if we invade Iraq thousands of female U.S. soldiers will be on the frontlines in the midst of battle, far more than at any time in American history. What follows is a question not yet asked of President Bush by our quiescent White House press corps: how will he respond if significant numbers of our military women are killed in Iraq?

Meanwhile, the Army has answered increasing pressure from women officers, especially West Point graduates, who claim they need combat experience to advance their careers – the same problem the men face. The Washington Monthly notes that since the Gulf War, the very sensitive political question of the assignment of so many more women to combat units is “an experiment that has been conducted largely below the threshold of public awareness.”

No, they won’t be down in the foxholes with the infantry grunts, but they’ll be close. And as a World War Two infantry survivor, I must say I’m truly impressed by the responsibilities and the extreme risks our Army women are now assuming. For example, they are serving as chemical officers who will lead the way through contaminated areas, engineer officers who will help bridge the Euphrates river, helicopter pilots who will carry infantrymen in and out of combat areas. They also are serving as military police, signal specialists, and in their ever-heroic role as medics in the field hospitals. And they’ll drive the truck convoys supplying the troops. And they’ll fix the trucks if they break down.

Women are now in infantry, armor, and artillery units at the brigade headquarters level and higher. Jobs, it’s said, that would have been unthinkable for them a decade ago. In this age of rapid maneuver, long-range artillery and missile warfare there really is no safe area anymore, and that’s where our women will be.

But again, we ask ourselves the question we would ask President Bush, how will we respond if significant numbers of our women are killed in Iraq? One answer comes from Elaine Donnelly, who chairs the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative group that opposes women in combat. She says, “We would have to desensitize the entire nation to violence against women. Endorsement of women in combat means an endorsement of violence against women at the hands of the enemy!”

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.

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