WASHINGTON -- A committee established to advise the Pentagon on the status of women in the military recommended yesterday that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney seek repeal of laws barring women from serving in combat positions.
Citing the performance of female GIs in the Persian Gulf war, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Military Services adopted the recommendation in a 29-4 vote at the conclusion of a three-day closed meeting in Washington.
Panel leaders discussed the recommendations Monday with Mr. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The proposal marked the first time since the early 1980s that the group has called for the repeal of the 1948 laws, which exclude women from positions in which they could be exposed to combat. Congress must act if the combat rules are to be changed.
The panel is composed of civilian women named by the White House to three-year advisory positions.
Mr. Cheney has resisted efforts to clarify his position on the politically charged issue, and it remained unclear yesterday whether he would act on the recommendation. However, the performance of women in Panama and in the Middle East war undoubtedly will add new pressure for the change.
Moreover, the recommendation comes in the wake of renewed congressional calls, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for Congress and the administration to change the so-called "combat exclusion laws."
"It's an extremely important step," said Carolyn Becraft, author of a recent study on women's military roles in Operation Desert Storm and a consultant to the Washington-based Women's Research and Education Institute.
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"It recognizes the reality of the Persian Gulf war, which is that when we go to war, women will go to war, too, and they shouldn't have these artificial restrictions," Ms. Becraft added. "These exclusion laws came out of 1948, and they're based on the old World War II scenarios. In this day and age, it's quite obvious that the battlefield has been narrowed to an extent where the distinction between combat and support is not meaningful."
Of 537,000 U.S. troops dispatched to the Middle East, more than 33,000 women served in key combat-support positions throughout the gulf region. Two women were taken prisoner by Iraqi forces. Three women were killed, both in rear areas such as Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and in forward positions with units moving deep into Iraq.
Women piloted and served as crew members in planes and helicopters, directed artillery, drove trucks in spite of Saudi laws that forbid women to drive and served on supply ships and in construction battalions that provided critical support to combat troops.
"In light of the role played by women in Desert Storm, the policy of excluding women in combat needs to be re-evaluated," said Mr. McCain in an April 17 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The issue of what is combat and what is not combat has been blurred, as the range of missiles and aircraft and equipment become greater.
"We found several situations where women not only found themselves in combat situations, but to the point where we had the loss of women both as POWs and as casualties of hostile fire. Women have demonstrated again that they can perform any role they are called upon to make."
For years, leading women in uniform have urged the repeal of the combat exclusion laws. Their inability to serve in key combat slots has consistently hampered their promotions through the services' ranks, many military women contend.
Women represent 11 percent of all active-duty personnel in the U.S. military and 13 percent of the ready reserves whose services proved vital during the six-month gulf crisis.