Women in war

May 14, 1991

It used to be that during war, most of the women in uniform were nurses. But a lot has changed since 1948 when the United States barred women from combat. Today women make up nearly half the work force -- holding jobs that a generation ago were off-limits to them, including key positions in the military.

The gulf war ignited a national debate on the role of women in the armed forces. Women participated in the initial surges into Iraq and Kuwait, and 33,000 women served in combat support positions that put them in harm's way. One woman was held as a POW and others were killed in action. This was not the first time women had seen military action. Female soldiers fully participated in the invasion and seizure of Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega.

In recognition of the changing role of women in the military, the House Armed Services Committee last week voted to allow the secretaries of the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to assign women pilots to combat missions -- a ground-breaking decision in which Maryland's Rep. Beverly Byron played a pivotal part. Byron, a conservative Democrat who once believed that women should be barred from combat, now recognizes that their experiences in Desert Storm have irrevocably changed the terms of debate. That, along with the voluntary nature of military service, makes a strong case for a new policy. But Byron is right to urge proceeding with caution: There are still daunting cultural and emotional questions about women in combat. In the wake of the gulf war, however, few can doubt women's capability to tackle it.

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