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'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Only the Latest Military Barrier to Fall

Bill Clark/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- If the Military Leadership Diversity Commission has its way, a full repeal Tuesday of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, won't be the last brick to fall from the U.S. military's sporadically crumbling barriers that have excluded African-Americans, women, Muslim clerics and even overweight recruits.

The panel recommended earlier this year, for instance, that the Department of Defense eliminate its "combat exclusion policies," meaning women would be assigned to units involved in "direct ground combat."

The record is long on diversity milestones that have changed the face of the nation's armed services.

Here are a few:

Women on Combat Ships
Woman can't serve in direct land combat but Congress enacted a law in 1993 that did allow them on combat ships, as well as bomber and fighter aircraft. And the military lifted its ban last year on their serving aboard submarines.

Muslim Chaplains
The Army signed up its first Muslim chaplain in 1993, followed later in the decade by a Navy chaplain who became the first Muslim to serve the Marine Corps.

Racial Desegregation
Whether it was because of President Harry S. Truman's 1948 executive order integrating black servicemen or the later need for soldiers in Korea, the military moved deliberately to desegregate its ranks. The last all-black unit was disbanded in the mid-1950s.

The military has even opened the door to more ex-convicts in recent years, although by necessity. "The significant increase in the recruitment of persons with criminal records is a result of the strain put on the military by the Iraq war," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told the Washington Post in 2008.

Overweight Recruits
Similarly, recruitment targets have prompted the military to be more lenient when it comes to enlisting overweight recruits, as Americans grow plumper and plumper. But a portly soldier is less likely to be a successful one, so he or she must adhere to a weight-control regimen to stay in good graces.

All-Male Academies
Women were long thought to be incapable of withstanding the rigors of military-oriented colleges, so they were denied access until the Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the all-male Virginia Military Institute admit them under the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

Women's Army Auxiliary Corps
Republican Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, proposed a bill in 1941 that would result in creation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC -- although an amendment to give woman full military status failed, so they were not part of the regular army.

They are today, but, as the Military Leadership Diversity Commission noted in its March 15, 2011, report to President Obama and Congress, the Defense Department and armed services "should report to Congress the process and timeline for removing barriers that inhibit women from achieving senior leadership positions."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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