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Most Americans back women in combat roles, poll says

By and and Jon Cohen,

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 prepares to review whether women should continue to be barred from combat units even though many of them often 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 active-duty service members (203,000 of about 1.4 million) and 18 percent of National Guard and reserve forces, according to the Pentagon. About 25,000 women are 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 (about 4,000 troops on average) whose primary mission is direct ground combat. But it allows women to serve in units that might engage in 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 in an e-mail. “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.”

Last week, a congressionally mandated commission recommended that the Pentagon end the 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 gain quicker access to medical and mental-health benefits related to combat experiences. Women often have difficulty proving combat experience because they lack formal combat assignments, 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 Gallucci, a spokesman for AMVETS, said his group supports the Pentagon 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.

On the other hand, Elaine Donnelly, founder and executive director of the Center for Military Readiness, said that assigning women to combat units could put them at unnecessary risk and shouldn’t be done to achieve diversity goals. Donnelly maintains that women generally are unsuited to combat. “Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive,” if they are assigned to infantry battalions, she said in an e-mail Wednesday.

“There is no ‘discrimination’ problem that requires extreme measures—such as forcing enlisted women into [direct ground combat] units — just to advance the career prospects of a future female officer who wants to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” she said.

Donnelly has studied military personnel issues since the 1980s and most recently led an unsuccessful campaign to prevent the government from ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

The Post-ABC 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.

Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

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