Female role in combat frowned on However, panel would let women on combat ships

November 04, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a series of narrow votes with potentially far-reaching political significance, a presidential commission has recommended barring women from serving in most combat roles, including flying combat aircraft.

The 15-member commission, however, said the Navy should consider opening its surface combat ships to women, who currently are restricted to just 66 non-combat ships in the 450-ship fleet.

The panel voted 8-6 yesterday with one abstention to recommend the repeal of existing laws and the modification of military service policies on women serving on combatant vessels. They recommended retaining the current ban on women aboard submarines and amphibious vessels but allowing them to serve for the first time on fighting ships such as destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers.

After eight months of fractious debate and testimony, the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces also rejected the opening of direct ground combat jobs and of special commando positions to women, decisions that were more widely expected.

While the commission's recommendation blocking women from ground combat had been anticipated, its decision to propose the continued ban on women piloting warplanes in combat was a surprise. The vote, concluded in a dramatic 8-7 showdown, will be reflected in a series of recommendations that will be sent to the president soon.

While it is an advisory recommendation, the vote represents a serious setback to many women in the services and to lawmakers who have agitated for expanded military job opportunities since the end of the Persian Gulf War. The commission's set of recommendations was particularly surprising because Congress already has repealed the prohibition against women flying combat jets.

However, lawmakers have not mandated changes that would open a broader range of Navy ships to women.

Lt. Paula Coughlin, a female Naval aviator who brought the alleged 1991 Tailhook sexual harassment charges into public view, expressed shock and disappointment at the commission's recommendation, although she said that she was not surprised by the vote.

"What just transpired . . . is probably just as damaging for the morale of women in the military as what I and other women endured in a hallway in Las Vegas last year," where the alleged sexual harassment took place at the annual convention of the Tailhook Association, Lt. Coughlin said.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who won yesterday's presidential election, has said that he would await the recommendations of the commission before taking action to expand opportunities for women in the services.

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