WASHINGTON -- Following the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the military has faced increasing pressure to open its most dangerous combat jobs to women. On Wednesday afternoon, that effort gained a prominent supporter when Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urging him to lift restrictions on women in combat.
"We have an obligation to expand the professional opportunities available to women, especially considering their sacrifices. Doing so in my view would improve military effectiveness, not detract from it," he wrote in the letter. Brown is a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, where he serves as a military lawyer.
Women have long been officially barred from what the Army terms "combat arms" -- jobs like infantry, armor, and artillery that engage the enemy directly. But many of the 255,000 women who've serve in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen combat in those fluid environments, and in some cases have been more explicitly placed in harm's way. In a notable example, the Marine Corps created small teams of female Marines to patrol and interact with local women, a concept now in the Army's plans as well.
Last week, the Department of Defense loosened restrictions on women serving in combat arms units. While they still cannot serve as infantrymen or tank crewmen, for example, a female medic or intelligence analyst would now be able to serve in a unit that previously wouldn't have included women at all. The new rules will take effect this summer.
But Brown claimed that even those changes are inadequate, saying that the new rules neither correspond to the reality of modern combat nor allow women equal opportunity within the military. “Closing these opportunities to women affect[s] their ability to develop a career path in the military and advance to higher ranks,” Brown wrote.
In calling for such opportunities, Brown places himself at odds with at least one major Republican figure. Earlier this month, Rick Santorum made widely criticized comments questioning the prudence of women serving in combat.
"I do have concerns about women in front-line combat. I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved," he said in an appearance on CNN. "It already happens, of course, with the camaraderie of men in combat, but I think it would be even more unique if women were in combat, and I think that's probably not in the best interest of men, women or the mission."
Yet polling shows that the public -- and many Republicans -- share Brown's stance. When asked by the Washington Post in March 2011, 73% of respondents and 58% of self-described "strong conservatives" said they approved of allowing women in combat.
The Globe speculated that Brown's stance could be motivated by his re-election fight with Democrat Elizabeth Warren. "It is an issue for women voters because it is a way to say these are positions women now have access to," said Elisabeth Armstrong, a professor of women and gender at all-women's Smith College, to the Globe.