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Female sailors serving on ships

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The long-standing ban on stationing female sailors in submarines is about to become a thing of the past. This week the Pentagon sent a letter to lawmakers telling them of this change in Navy policy adding that the first female officers will probably start appearing on nuclear submarines by early next year.

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This is one more step forward for women in the military, although the ban on females serving in certain combat positions still remains intact. Women now make up some 15 percent of the all-volunteer services, and have become crucial to keeping the nation's military operational. It's odd when we look back that even as recently as during the first George W. Bush administration, a group of military experts the president empanelled, conservatives for the most part, still tried to argue that women should not be in combat and should have limited roles in the military.

Ever since the Iraq War and even before, it's evident that women now make up a vital and much-needed part of our armed forces. Technology and war itself have evolved to the point where the line between combat and non-combat jobs is so blurred as to be indistinguishable. Women may be barred from combat, but they still are part of the chuck crews whose trucks roam the front lines to feed hungry troops. They may be barred from combat but as fighter pilots, if shot down over enemy territory, they're still as close to the combat zone as any male member of the services.

Yes, women's presence in large numbers in the armed forces has created problems. What happens when a single mother is sent overseas to a combat zone? (Answer: she is not allowed to enlist unless she has a backup child care plan for her child/children, so they are spoken for if she's assigned overseas.) What happens when women get pregnant in the military (Answer: overseas military hospitals just started providing Plan B to female service members so they can prevent a fertilized egg from becoming a pregnancy.)

In the case of submarines, there were special considerations. Not only do they go underwater for long periods of time, but sailors sleep in shifts in shared beds -- a practice known as "hot bunking." It doesn't take an Ivy League degree to see where that can lead. But the Navy's experiment with women on subs will start with women officers only -- officers have their own private bunks.

If we look back through history, women have always served in the military, even in combat, in one way or another. "Joan of Arc...in 1429, at age 17, successfully led French troops into battle against the English. Hundreds of women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Beginning in 1942, separate military services for women were established, but women did not gain professional military status until 1948 when President Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act which limited their number to 2 percent of the total military."

While integrating women into the armed services has created some problems, no one ever talks about the necessity the all-volunteer forces have created. There's a shortage of Americans volunteering for the services. Were it not for the large number of women seeking to serve, Congress may well have had to reinstitute a draft.

While some peace activists would like to see the draft resurrected (believing that if Congress and White House officials had to send their own children into service, there would be many fewer wars) that does not seem to be possible at this period in American history. So the few critics of women in combat who still exist should consider this: if they succeeded in barring women from combat or even from any combat-related position, would they want to watch their own children be drafted into military service? I think the answer would be no. So in that sense, they should be thrilled that women are filling 15 percent of the need for soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel.

-- Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail her at bonnieerbe@CompuServe.com.

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