WASHINGTON - A military advisory commission is recommending that the Pentagon do away with a policy that bans women from serving in combat units, breathing new life into a long-simmering debate.
Though thousands of women have been involved in the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have done so while serving in combat support roles - as medics, logistics officers and so on - because defense policy prohibits women from being assigned to any unit smaller than a brigade whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground.
On Friday, a special panel was meeting to polish the final draft of a report that recommends the policy be eliminated "to create a level playing field for all qualified service members."
If it were approved by the Defense Department, it would be yet another sizable social change in a force that in the last year has seen policy changes to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly for the first time in the military and to allow Navy women to serve on submarines for the first time.
The new report by a panel of retired and current military officers says that keeping women out of combat posts prohibits them from serving in roughly 10 percent of Marine Corps and Army occupational specialties and thus is a barrier to promotions and advancement.
Of the roughly 2.2 million troops who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 255,000 have been women, said Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez.
Opponents of women in combat question whether they have the necessary strength and stamina.
They also have said the inclusion of women in infantry and other combat units will harm unit cohesion and that Americans won't tolerate large numbers of women coming home in body bags.