Seven in 10 Americans support permitting women in the military to serve in ground units that engage in close combat, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The findings come as the Pentagon is preparing to review whether women should still be barred from combat units even though many of them frequently engage opposing forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Overall, 73 percent of respondents support giving women direct combat roles and 25 percent oppose the move. Seventy-three percent of women and 72 percent of men favor extending formal combat roles to women, as do 80 percent of self-described Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents.
Women account for 14.5 percent of all active-duty service members (203,000 of about 1.4 million active-duty troops) and 18 percent of the National Guard and reserve forces, according to the Pentagon. About 25,000 women are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for about 10 percent of U.S. forces there.
Since 1994, the Pentagon has barred women from serving in any unit below the brigade level whose primary mission is direct ground combat. But it allows women to serve in units that might face combat-related action.
“The nature of today’s conflicts is evolving; there are no front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said Monday. “While women are not assigned to units below brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground, this doesn’t mean they are not assigned to positions in combat zones that could place them in danger.”
A congressionally-mandated commission recommended last week that the Pentagon end the current ban in order “to create a level playing field for all qualified service members.” The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, chartered by Congress as part of the annual defense authorization bill in 2009, issued 20 recommendations designed to prepare a higher percentage of women and minorities to serve in top military leadership positions.
Verna Jones, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation issues for the American Legion, said a change in policy would help female veterans earn quicker access to medical and mental-health benefits related to combat experiences. Many women often have difficulty proving combat experience because they lack the formal combat assignment, she said.
Any change “would definitely help women who suffer these types of injuries and better help them gather data on the injuries so they can get the benefits they deserve,” Jones said.
Ryan Galluci, a spokesman for AMVETS, said his group also supports the Pentagon’s review. “Women fly helicopters on combat sorties, women man turret guns on tactical patrols, and we see female engagement teams attached to line units for kinetic operations,” he said in an e-mail.
The telephone poll was conducted March 10 to 13, among a random national sample of 1,005 adults. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Review all Washington Post-ABC News polls at washingtonpost.com/polls.
Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.
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