It was incorrectly reported Sunday that 25 percent of all Army jobs are closed to women because they are considered combat-related. The actual figure is 42 percent.
Maj. Gen. David E. Grange, Jr., a much-decorated combat veteran of three wars and commander of this base known "the home of the infantry," just loves Army women: "They remind me of the little guy on a baseball team -- they try harder and they do a good job."
Women make such good soldiers, Grange says, that they ought to be subject to conscription for duty as support troops.
But the last thing he want to see is women on the front lines.
"What you're talking about is a plane unloading at Andrews [Air Force Base] with disfigured gals," said the 54-year-old two-star general who served two tours in Vietnam. "The bottom line is a fourth floor in a VA hospital for girl paraplegics. I just don't want to see gals in the front lines."
Grange is not alone. President Carter's recent call for predraft registration of 16 million American males has set off a ferociously emotional and politically explosive debate about the role of women in the military. The White House has announced that by Feb. 9 the president will decide whether to recommend the registration of more than 16 million draft-age women, a move that would require congressional approval and invite handwringing throughout official Washington.
"Should women register for the draft and should they be eligible for combat are two of the questions Congress would really rather not consider," said one veteran congressional observer. "If the decision is that women should register but not be forced into combat, then why shouldn't men ask for the same privilege?"
(A Washington Post poll of 2,505 people taken nationwide in November showed that half of those queried felt that if men were required to serve in the armed forces, women should be also. Of those polled, 57 percent of the men favored military service for women and 38 percent were opposed. Of the women, 49 percent opposed military service for both sexes while 45 percent favored it.)
As Washington wrangles over these questions, many of the 748 women and nearly 24,000 men at this Army base 700 miles to the south say they favor a unisex draft.
"Women have been getting the benefits of citizenship for a long time. It's time they assumed some of the responsibility," said Lt. Ann Clawson, 24.
Many women here say they think qualified female soldiers of a mind to should be allowed to volunteer for combat duty.
"If I joined the Army I should be ready for anything," said PFC Susan Moore, 27, who enlisted four months ago. "If I had to, I'd go to combat." Moore said she thought she was as qualified as many of the men with whom she went through basic training. "Most of them didn't even make sharpshooter with an M16. I made expert marksman."
PFC Eva Dickerson, a 24-year-old interrogator with the combat-ready 197th Infantry Brigade, said she resented exclusion from combat units on the basis on sex.
"I could go to airborne school and get a pair of jump wings to sit on my uniform, but what's the point? I can't get dropped into Iran," Dickerson said. "The Army has a lot of really fun things women can't do."
Among the things the nearly 62,000 women in the Army can't do are serve in infantry and paratroop units trained for routine involvement in close-order combat.
In the last few years, spurred by problems in recruiting men and the general social push for sexual equality, the Army has opened to women large numbers of once exclusively male combat support jobs like Dickerson's. That means, though, that while a woman can drive a supply truck a mile from the front lines, she cannot serve with an artillery crew.
Although the Army is developing gender-free skill and strength requirements for its 352 military occupational specialties, 25 percent of Army jobs remain closed to women, who make up 8 percent of the 759,000-member force.
The continued existence of the all-volunteer force depends on the Pentagon's ability to attract more women for three- and four-year tours of duty to meet recruiting quotas and ease the shortfalls caused by the dwindling pool of available young men. This year, officials say, the Army must recruit 33 percent more men and 36 percent more women to compensate for severe 1979 shortfalls.
The Army, which has the greatest need for recruits and has experienced the largest increase in the number of woman enlistees of all the services, hopes by 1983 to have a force of about 90,000 women, which would mean an Army 13 percent female. In 1973, the last year of the draft, 2 percent of the Army -- slightly more than 16,000 troops -- was female.
In theory, removal of the barriers keeping women from combat duty might ease the Army's manpower problems, but Army officials caution no one knows how many women would qualify, let alone volunteer, for combat.
Unlike the Navy and Air Force, which are legally barred from assigning women to duty aboard combat ships and planes, the Army's combat exclusive is a matter of policy, not statute.
(For the past two years the Air Force and Navy have been unsuccessful in attempts to get Congress to repeal these restrictions -- adopted in 1948 as part of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act -- and leave the assignment of women instead to the service secretaries. The 1948 act, designed to ease postwar recruiting shortfalls of males and attract women into the various all-female corps, excluded the Army because at the time the idea of women in combat roles was considered preposterous.)
Yet precisely because the Army has progressively narrowed the definition of combat and because modern warfare involved more fluid battle lines than previous conventional wars, women would be exposed to far greater risks than ever should conflict break out.
"The whole battlefield -- rear areas and all -- are going to be extremely lethal in any next major war," said the Army's acting secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, William Clark. "Women will be killed, wounded captured in the next war," said Clark who asserted that "women are doing a superb job in the Army. We've far passed the point where they are an experiment."
"But units engaged in close combat are principally in a dirty, filthy business that is extremely violent. The fundamental objective of the Army is to be prepared and there's a lot we still don't know about women in the military," he said.
Among the unknowns, Clark said are reactions of men obliged to lead women into combat and the strength of the temptation to expose themselves and their units to danger by rushing to the aid of a woman wounded in battle.
"I'm going to protect a wounded male soldier as much as a wounded female soldier," said Col. Michael F. Spigelmire, commander of the 197th Infantry Brigade. "But is that the mentality of the guys in this brigade? I doubt it. I'm also not going to say that all females should have the opportunity to live like a hog in the field and be able to join the infantry."
In Spigelmire's view, the 150 women of the 197th performed well in "Operation Bold Eagle," a recent 2 1/2-week exercise that simulated guerrilla warfare and airborne assault. "They did fine and they were subject to the same hardships in the field as the [4,000] men," Spigelmire said.
"What people are really afraid of," said Air Force Undersecretary Antonia H. Chavez, "is male chivalry, not female performance. We've seen that women in the services can do a lot of things that people once thought they couldn't, no one worries anymore about flying a plane serviced by a female mechanic."
In 1977, before the dissolution of the Women's Army Corps, the Army began integrating men and women into basic training units. Both sexes now undergo the same seven-week course in coed units. They learn to fire identical M16 rifles, throw the same grenades, endure the same push-up drills and go on the same endless road marches through mud and rain.
Despite the new emphasis on physical training for women, some in the Army feel women are psychologically incapable of combat duty.
"If combat is trench warfare, the king of hand-to-hand combat that involves pushing a bayonet into someone's gut, well, a majority of women can't do it," said one Army expert. "But you know what, neither can a majority of men."
Some male GIs, acknowledging that some women may be their equal in physical strength, have more deepseated objections to the participation of women in combat.
"Would you want to see your mother running down the road carrying a 40-pound rucksack? Of course not," said Sgt. Autrail Cobb, an instructor in Fort Benning's Ranger training course. "It's hereditary that men don't want women in combat, even when a woman looks like she could wrassle an ape. We just weren't raised that way."
Sgt. Bruce Flaugh, a 24-year-old parachute rigger, agreed. "If women want to prove themselves liberated, then the Army is the way to do it. But it takes a male and a female to make a baby. If we kill off all our females in war, then who'll make babies?"
Army women protest that such arguments merely exemplify the "keep 'em barefoot and pregnant" school of thought and demean their abilities as soldiers.
"Men are still suffering from paternalism," said Sgt. Sharon Calabrisi, 25. "The Army tries to tell us that we're soldiers first and then women, but I think they believe we're women first and then soldiers."
"I wouldn't volunteer for combat, but I'd go if America was threatened," Calabrisi said. "I think a lot of women can go to war and survive. Besides, I'd rather be hiding in the bush with an M16 rather than driving a truck to the front lines with an M16 beside me."
Some women trained in key combat support roles, like helicopter mechanic Sheri L. Barkley, 20, says that the combat exclusion makes them feel less a part of the team. "I know my job, I know my helicopter and it's my unit," she said. "It's like you're a member of the team, but when it's really important then the Army says women can't go."
Others argue that by assigning women direct combat roles, the United States would be made to look impotent to the rest of the world. "It would bother me to have gals up there in the front lines with a bayonet and a rifle taking on a big Russian," said Grange, Fort Benning's commanding officer. "What would the Russian general staff think?"
Defense Department officials know of no armies currently training women for direct combat. The Israelis pulled women out of combat in the late 1940s for two reasons: a need to populate that tiny country and because intelligence reports showed that Arab troops fought harder to avoid capture by units with women members.
"Women have always been the resource of last resort," observed deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity Kathleen Carpenter. "We need to learn in peacetime what the capability of this nation would be without precluding 51 percent of our populace out of hand."
"Men do not have a monopoly on patriotism, physical ability, desire for adventure or a willingness to risk their lives," said Diana Steele, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project. Steele, who favors basing combat requirements on skill and strength rather than gender, says that the combat exclusion bars women, particularly officers, from attaining high-level military jobs because most require combat experience.
Martin Binkin of the Brookings Institution and coauthor of an influential 1977 study on women in the military, says the combat question must be resolved by Congress.
"For too long we've ignored the question, because people don't want to meet it head-on," said Binkin, a retired Air Force colonel. "Combat in this day and age is not that clearly defined and it differs among the services, but I think the burden of proof is on people who say that the introduction of women would not harm unit effectiveness."
"There isn't enough scientific evidence that's going to lead to the right answer," Binkin said. The question will turn on moral and political issues."