Legislation on women leaves combat issue to Pentagon

May 26, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON WTB — WASHINGTON -- Congress, emboldened by public acceptance of women's role during the Persian Gulf war, is lTC about to eliminate the last statutory barriers to allowing women to serve in combat.

With the backing of the Pentagon, the House Armed Services Committee has approved legislation that would give the Department of Defense a broad mandate to expand women's roles in the military, but would leave it to the armed services to decide where to draw the line.

The Senate Armed Services panel is expected to consider the measure in mid-June, in time for final passage by both houses by the end of the summer. No serious opposition is expected in either house.

The new push reflects a change in lawmakers' assessments of voters' perceptions about women's roles in combat in the wake of public acceptance of women's roles in combat situations in the Persian Gulf.

The conundrum for the Pentagon is that, as the Persian Gulf war demonstrated, women already are serving in jobs where they are exposed to dangerous areas near or at the front lines. And women pilots and sailors often are as vulnerable as men serving in "combat" situations.

As a result, any further expansion of women's roles in the military services is virtually certain to bring the barriers, which were set up in 1948 to exclude women from combat service, tumbling down. And it will be the Pentagon that will have to take credit or blame.

That is just the way lawmakers want it, according to women who have been active in pressing for the repeal of the current barriers. By approving the vague language now on the table, they will have taken a symbolic step but avoided having to hammer out the details.

"They don't want a roll-call vote on whether women should go to war," said Carolyn Becraft, a consultant to the Women's Research and Education Institute. "That's not a clip they want sent to the home district" next time a war flares up, she said.

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