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Women are still waiting

Here’s a tale of two photographs distributed recently by news agencies. In one, two sailors embrace on a pier in Virginia and exchange the traditional “first kiss” as one of them completes an 80-day sea voyage. In the other, two Marines in full battle gear walk patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

All four of the soldiers are women.

The first picture shows how swiftly gays have improved their status in the military. Last September, the outmoded “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was finally dismantled and now same sex couples can openly celebrate their unions, and reunions, alongside their straight comrades.

“It’s something new, that’s for sure,” one of the smooching sailors, Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta, told reporters. “It’s nice to be able to be myself. It’s been a long time coming.”

But female soldiers are still waiting for that same level of acceptance when it comes to serving in combat. The Marines in the second photo, Corporal Jessica Williams and Lance Corporal Shawnee Redbear, share the same jobs and dangers as their male counterparts. But since women are officially barred from serving directly in ground combat units, they can only be “attached” to those units. As a result of this convenient fiction, the women don’t get full credit or recognition for their service.

This is not just a question of bookkeeping or even fairness. Without serving in combat units, women find it much harder to get promoted and rise to positions of authority. “Women are everywhere on the battlefield,” Donna McAleer, a West Point graduate, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “The law has not yet caught up with the historical as well as the present reality of war.”

It’s time for that law to change. Last spring, Congress directed the Pentagon to review its policy toward women in combat. That decision has been delayed several times but when it comes, only one option makes sense: end the ban that has already been shredded in practice.

The arguments against gays in the military and women in combat sound very similar. Tradition will be violated. Unit cohesion will be lost. Gays and women are not quite strong enough or brave enough to do what the straight guys do. And what about those showers?

But as a commission on diversity in the armed forces asserted last spring, those arguments are based on phobias, not facts. “There is little evidence,” the panel concluded, “that the integration of women into previously closed units or occupations has had a negative effect on important mission-related performance.”

The ban on gays took a heavy toll. During the 18 years it was in force, more than 14,000 soldiers were expelled from the ranks, and those who survived had to live in secrecy and fear. Petty Officer Gaeta met her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell, two years ago while both were training to be Navy fire controllers.

“We did have to hide a lot in the beginning,” says Snell, “but we can finally be honest about who we are in our relationship.”

The Marines in Helmand, Corporals Williams and Redbear, deserve the same level of honesty about the roles they are playing. And in fact, it’s in the military’s self-interest to end the combat ban. Listen to Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who supports at least a partial change, allowing women to serve as intelligence and signal officers in combat units.

“We need them there,” he said in a recent interview with WUSA-TV. “This is about managing talent. We have incredibly talented females who should be in those positions.”

The military’s doctrine has simply not kept pace with modern warfare. Battle lines are often blurry and combat is not always a clear concept. Grim evidence of that fact: more than 130 female soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, counter-insurgency strategy stresses the value of fostering connections to local communities. But in more traditional societies, such as rural Afghanistan, male foot soldiers often cannot make those connections with more than half the population -- women and children.

That’s why the Marines have created “female engagement teams,” or FETs, to fill that vacuum. The New York Times reports that children are much more receptive when a military unit entering their village includes women. Otherwise, said one male soldier, “It’s just a bunch of guys with rockets and machine guns trying to hand out a bear to a kid, and he starts to cry.”

It’s been a long march toward equality in the military. First blacks gained full rights, then gays. Women are still waiting.

Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at stevecokie@gmail.com.