Army Spc. Monica Brown, a medic from the 82nd Airborne...

Army Spc. Monica Brown, a medic from the 82nd Airborne Division, received a silver star at an award ceremony at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, for moving wounded soldiers out of harm's way while under enemy fire. Brown is the second female since World War II to earn the Silver Star award for her gallant actions while in combat. (March 20, 2008) Credit: AP

Anyone serving in the U.S. military who is ready, willing and able to fight for this nation should be allowed to do it. That includes women who, under an outmoded policy, are barred from jobs that involve direct ground combat.

The defense department has been slow-walking away from the restrictive policy, but much too leisurely. A federal lawsuit filed last week should prod the Pentagon to pick up the pace.

Two U.S. Army reservists, Col. Ellen Haring and Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin, contend in the suit that the prohibition violates their constitutional right to equal protection of the law. Women barred from direct combat often lose out on promotions because they lack the very combat experience the military denies them. That potentially limits the earnings and pensions of the more than 200,000 women among the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel. The Department of Defense needs to eliminate this structural inequity.

There are practical concerns in integrating women into combat and elite special operations units. They must be physically able to do the jobs. Providing privacy for a few women in a unit could be difficult. And women in combat units might initially compromise cohesion, trigger disruptive chivalry, and risk sexual assault if they're captured.

But those concerns are surmountable. And they don't justify continuing a policy of official discrimination that locks women out of about three in 10 jobs in the Army and Marine Corps, and one in 10 in the Navy.

The policy is particularly absurd because women often find themselves in combat anyway. The nature of warfare has changed since January 1994, when the military imposed its current, restrictive policy. In the modern battlefield, there's no clearly defined front line or safe rear area where combat support operations that include jobs held by women are performed.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, female soldiers technically in noncombat jobs still must travel roads littered with deadly improvised explosive devices, and confront a shadowy enemy able to strike unpredictably. As a result, 144 U.S. servicewomen have given their lives in those wars and about 900 have been wounded.

The U.S. military should officially recognize service in any war zone as ground combat, which would enable women to punch that key ticket for advancement.

That would advance the Pentagon's goal of "removing all barriers that would prevent service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant," spelled out in a February report to Congress reviewing the policy.

Earlier this month the Army began opening to women more than 13,000 positions previously restricted to men. They are jobs -- like mechanic and intelligence officer -- that require personnel to remain with direct ground combat units. That's progress. But unlike many of the nation's allies, including Canada, France and Germany, the U.S. military, with too few exceptions, still restricts the role of women in combat. That paternalistic policy should be retooled. It's out of step with modern times and modern warfare.

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