Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make an official announcement tomorrow, apparently, but the ban on women in combat roles has been overturned. I think this is primarily an admission of reality; in a war without front lines, women–both soldiers and civilians–are always on the front, whether they’re officially supposed to be there or not. Female Marines are deployed in Afghanistan to gather intelligence from the local community, as women in an extremely patriarchal society are unlikely to talk to male personnel. And of course, they come under fire. They’re already in combat; overturning the ban is a recognition of their experiences.
From a New York Times article from 2010:
Current Pentagon policy bars women from joining combat branches like the infantry, armor and Special Forces, and Congress in the past has sought to restrict military women’s roles even more. But in a common side step during nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, women are “attached,” rather than assigned, to combat units. The female engagement teams simply say they “accompany” Marine infantry units on their patrols.
The review ended after three weeks, when lawyers and Marine commanders clarified some rules: the teams could not go on foot patrols primarily intended to hunt and kill the enemy, and they were not allowed more than “temporary stays” at the combat bases where they had been living for months.
When a debate broke out over what constituted a “temporary stay,” General Mills decreed it as 45 days. To fulfill the letter but hardly the spirit of the guidelines, the female Marines now travel from their combat outposts every six weeks for an overnight stay at a big base like Camp Leatherneck, then head back out the next morning.
To Captain Naslund, the legal hoops are absurd when there are no front lines — and when members of her team are taking fire almost daily on foot patrols.
Utne Reader also covered women in combat in spring 2012:
If you ask the U.S. military, none of these women officially served in battle. That’s because females in the armed forces don’t technically fight in ground combat. But the Department of Defense (DOD) policy belies the reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its willful avoidance of the truth denies military women safety training, health care, and career advancement…
Modern military conflicts put every soldier, male or female, directly in the line of fire. For instance, according to Patricia Hayes, national director of women’s health for the Veterans Health Administration, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military today is driving a truck—a position that many women hold.
“The issue of women in battle is coming to a head now because there’s no demarcation between combat and non-combat in the Middle East,” says former U.S. Representative Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who served on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee from 1973 to 1996. “As it stands, there no longer is an official front line.”