(WASHINGTON) -- While thousands of women face the dangers of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan every day, serving as aviators, military police, intelligence, and civil affairs officers, they remain technically barred from infantry units that specialize in close combat with the enemy on the ground.
Critics say the policy creates an unlevel playing field that makes it difficult for women to pursue careers in front-line tactical operations and acquire experience essential for assuming some of the military's top jobs.
However, that policy could soon come to an end.
The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a nonpartisan advisory panel created in 2009 to study advancement of women and minorities in the military, is expected to formally recommend as early as Monday that President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates end the restrictions.
"The Commission recommends that DoD and the Services take steps to open all career fields and units to all women who are qualified," commission members wrote in their draft report, due in final form before March 15.
The commission's report will go to Congress and the White House upon its release. But, ultimately, it's up to Gates to decide on a change of policy, because no law exists to exclude women from joining infantry units.
The panel found that allowing women to serve formally in close-combat units would have minimal impact on unit readiness and mission capability, morale, or cohesion, and restore a more equitable environment for all service members based on their qualifications.
Advocates for women in the military have hailed the report as a step toward recognition of the contributions women have already made on the front lines.
There are more than 213,000 women on active duty in the U.S. military, comprising 14 percent of the overall force and serving in each of the service branches, according to Women in Military Service for America. But disproportionately small numbers are flag officers or generals.
Women are least represented in the Marine Corps, which is 93 percent male. Only 3 percent of the Marines' flag officers and generals are women.
Opponents of change say close-combat conditions are no place for women, who don't have the physical strength to match their male counterparts and whose presence would bring sexual tension to the ranks and provide tempting targets to enemies intent on capturing them.
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