WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military opened more jobs to women this week that are closer to combat, but a new bill being introduced in the Senate would allow them to risk their lives and die on the front lines just like men.
The measure, the Gender Equality in Combat Act drawn up by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would order the Department of Defense to issue a report within a year that sets an end date for the military's ground combat exclusion policy for women.
“I’ve heard from women all across New York who want nothing more than to take a leadership role on the frontlines defending our country," said Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Just like it was wrong to discriminate against service members because of who they love, it is also wrong to deny combat roles to qualified women solely because of their gender."
A similar measure mandated a report that came out in February that opened up a number of new jobs for women closer to classic combat action, including medic and tank mechanic. The military began implementing that policy Monday.
But advocates for women in the armed forces argue that the military needs to go the rest of the way and open up positions in the infantry and perhaps special forces that are still barred to them, noting that in effect women are already seeing combat, without the recognition.
"For all practical purposes, women already are on the front lines, and the rules that exclude them represent kind of an archaic concept of war," said Rachel Natelson, the legal director of the Service Women's Action Network.
The Department of Defense says 144 women have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 800 have been injured. But Natelson said that the lack of formal recognition for women's combat roles means that it is harder for them to advance, and harder for them to get veteran disability benefits when battle stress takes its inevitable toll.
"It's not really a change in fact, it's a change in law," Natelson said.
While some have raised concerns about women's ability -- or liability -- in battle, Natelson pointed to numerous studies over the years that found there are certain instances in which women are actually better suited. A number of other nations, including U.S. allies fighting in Afghanistan, already allow female soldiers on the front lines.
"There's also the larger civil rights issue, because if women can serve as capably as men, there's not justification for the military to exclude them," Natelson said.
Gillibrand has begun to circulate her bill among other members of the Armed Services Committee, and is hoping it will be incorporated into the larger defense authorization that the committee will start working on next Wednesday. But failing that, she intends to offer it as an amendment or stand-alone legislation.
"We know that women can do anything they put their minds to, and they are already fighting and dying for our country shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in uniform," Gillibrand said. "When all of our best and brightest serve in combat our country is stronger for it.”