Byron's stance on women in combat has softened

May 13, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Persian Gulf war helped to change a lot of men's minds about women in combat, but one of the most influential minds to have been changed may have been a woman's -- that of Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-Md.-6th.

Last year, Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Army to open combat positions to women for a four-year trial period.

The proposal sparked quick criticism from the Pentagon and from Mrs. Byron, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who shared the conservative view that women should not be allowed in combat.

Last week, Mrs. Schroeder pushed an amendment before the House Armed Services Committee that would allow Air Force women to fly combat missions. This time, Mrs. Byron wants to take it even further and include the Navy and Marines. And the measure that many are hailing as a watershed event sailed through the committee.

"It was heartening to see this,"said a Schroeder aide. "Mrs. Byron has a long history of being against this."

The Frederick Democrat, who chairs the committee's military personnel subcommittee, said the experiences of women in the Persian Gulf war helped to bring about her change of heart.

"We had women who were flying tankers . . . and C-5's [and] helicopters that were in a threatened environment, that were in a hostile environment, in a front-line environment," she said. "I don't perceive [the amendment] as that monumental. To me, it was just a logical next step."

Under current law, women in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force are barred from serving on ships and aircraft engaged in combat missions. The Army isn't covered under the same statute but has written its own regulations in line with the law.

The Schroeder-Byron amendment, which will be taken up by the House later this month as part of next year's defense authorization act, would require the services to place women on combat missions but would leave that option up to the services' secretaries.

"Can you believe it?" asked ashocked Mrs. Schroeder after the committee hearing. "The Armed Services Committee finally woke up to the 20th century. It's about time we recognized the skilled and talented women in our military."

Since the gulf fighting ended, a growing chorus of voices has questioned the 1948 law barring women from combat.

"I think it's time we re-evaluated that policy," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services' manpower and personnel subcommittee and a Vietnam veteran. "I think that clearly women have demonstrated again that they can perform any role thatthey're called upon, that any male is called upon, to make."

At the same time, Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., a former Navy secretary and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress should review the combat exclusion law and urged Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to address the issue.

Last month, a Pentagon committee recommended that Secretary Cheney repeal the laws barring women from combat, while a Navy study group urged the service to allow more enlisted women to serve at sea. Under federal law, women cannot be assigned to vessels engaged in combat missions.

But Mrs. Byron, who helped open up more positions to women on Navy support ships, is not ready to scrap the 1948 law and says she is still philosophically opposed to women in combat.

For example, the Maryland lawmaker said she still opposes havingwomen serve in front-line units or on submarines. She favors a more cautious approach, to "move forward without gutting" the combat exclusion law. "I have been historically opposed to throwing the whole thing out at once," she said.

The congresswoman, whose father served as General Dwight D. Eisenhower's World War II naval aide, also said women serving in the military have mixed views about being involved in combat.

During a hearing two years ago, a woman pilot "felt very strongly that women should be given an opportunity to go into the fighter track," Mrs. Byron said.

But at a hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C., she recalled, she was told by some women military police officers, "We do not believe we belong in front-line combat."

"I think there's a difference between women in an MP unit and a supply line, and . . . in a foxhole," she said.

Among those who disagree is Carolyn Becraft of the Women's Research and Education Institute, author of a report on women in the gulf war, who said such an argument has become "irrelevant" since women from intelligence units and supply units swept in and out of the front lines during the war.

Some 33,000 U.S. military women served in key combat-support positions throughout the Persian Gulf region, Ms. Becraft found. Women participated in the initial Army surges into Iraq and into Kuwait, including flying helicopters and taking part in special operations.

Mrs. Byron agreed that the gulf war has changed the public's view of women in the military. Twenty years ago, she said, it was unusual to see a woman in uniform. But the televised coverage of the gulf war showed a woman held as a prisoner of war, and news reports told of women killed in action.

"When a young man is killed in the line of duty, it's a tragedy," Mrs. Byron said. "When a young woman is killed in the line of duty, it's a tragedy. I think it is no longer a difference between the tragedies."

Nevertheless, Mrs. Byron intends to move slowly on the issue of women in combat. She said more assignments may be opened to women -- but only after hearings.

"I think we need to let a little bit of [the Persian Gulf war] filter down first," she said.

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