WASHINGTON, March 7, 2011 -- A commission established to study diversity among military leaders is recommending that the Defense Department rescind its policy that prevents women from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level.
In a report issued today, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommends that the department and the services eliminate combat exclusion policies for women, as well as other "barriers and inconsistencies, to create a level playing field for all qualified servicemembers."
Retired Air Force Gen. Lester L. Lyles, who chaired the commission, said the recommendation -- one of 20 in the report and the only one specific to women -- is one way the congressionally mandated body suggests the military can get more qualified women into its more-senior leadership ranks.
"We know that [the exclusion] hinders women from promotion," Lyles said in an interview with American Forces Press Service. "We want to take away all the hindrances and cultural biases" in promotions.
The commission was established as part of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act to evaluate and assess policies that provide opportunities for promotion and advancement of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the armed forces.
The 1994 combat exclusion policy, as written, precludes women from being "assigned" to ground combat units, but women have for years served in ground combat situations by serving in units deemed "attached" to ground units, Lyles said. That distinction keeps them from being recognized for their ground combat experience -- recognition that would enhance their chances for promotion, he said.
"If you look at today's battlefield, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's not like it was in the Cold War, when we had a defined battlefield," Lyles said. "Women serve -- and they lead -- military security, military police units, air defense units, intelligence units -- all of which have to be right there with combat veterans in order to do the job appropriately."
Women serving in combat environments are being shot at, killed and maimed, Lyles said.
"But they're not getting the credit for being in combat arms," he said, "[and] that's important for their consideration for the most senior flag ranks -- three stars and four stars, primarily."
In the commission's outreach to military leaders, Lyles said, at least a couple of service leaders thought there would be little interest among women to serve in combat. But when the commission brought in a panel of commissioned and enlisted women from different services, "that's certainly not what we picked up" from talking to them, he said.
"I didn't hear, 'Rah, rah, we want to be in combat,'" he said, "but I also didn't hear, 'We don't want to be in combat.' What they want is an equal opportunity to serve where their skills allow them to serve. Removing the barriers for that, and removing the barriers to them getting credit for that, was our Number One focus."
Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said department officials "will thoroughly evaluate" the panel's recommendations as part of their ongoing review of diversity policies.
Meanwhile, she said, "Women will continue to be assigned to units and positions that may necessitate combat actions within the scope of their restricted positioning -- situations for which they are fully trained and equipped to respond."
Women make up about 15 percent of active-duty servicemembers; 18 percent of National Guard and Reserves; and ten percent of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans; and 10 percent of those who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, Lainez said.