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Forcing their way into combat units

On May 3, two days after Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces, Stephen Colbert celebrated the terrorist’s assassination as only a true pop culture patriot could.

world Updated: May 21, 2011 22:59 IST

On May 3, two days after Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces, Stephen Colbert celebrated the terrorist’s assassination as only a true pop culture patriot could.

“I want to personally congratulate the guys who got ‘er done: SEAL Team 6!” Colbert brayed, jabbing the air with his fingers for emphasis. “Their identities are classified, so I’m just gonna guess it’s Rambo, John McClane, Master Chief, the Batman, Vin Diesel, Lara Croft and, let’s say, Kung Fu Panda.”

But Lara Croft wouldn’t be allowed to participate. She is, after all, a woman. The policy against women assigned to ground combat units has been in effect since the beginning of the US military. (Regulations forbidding women to serve as crew members of planes and ships engaged in combat weren’t even lifted until the mid-’90s.)

But due to the asymmetric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; higher numbers, expanding opportunities and growing visibility of women in uniform, it’s increasingly clear that the next blow against the military’s bulletproof glass ceiling will be directed against the ban on women in Special Forces. This point was underscored almost three weeks ago when, a 79-person team made up of CIA operatives, intelligence experts and aforementioned Special Forces soldiers executed a successful raid on bin Laden’s suburban Pakistani hideout.

Although President Obama, CIA Director Leon Panetta and the roughly two dozen Navy SEALs who participated in the raid have received most of the adulation, there was most likely a significant female element as well.

“I can guarantee you that women were involved,” says Kirsten Holmstedt, author of “Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq.” Paula Broadwell, an Army reservist with experience in special ops and author of an upcoming biography on her mentor, Gen. David H. etraeus, agrees: “They definitely weren't the SEALs, but they were probably involved in the planning, in CIA operations on the ground and other important roles.” But all is not fair in war. The justifications used to keep women out of combat and special ops units are the same paternalistic, discriminatory excuses used in favor of upholding racial segregation in the military.

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