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Aussie combat women -

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The ban on hand to hand combat roles for female soldiers may soon be lifted, putting Australia in
line with Israel, some European countries and New Zealand. Women already make up 13 percent of
Australia's Defence Force but the move is aimed at improving gender imbalance.

Transcript

ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: The issue of women in the military has long sparked controversy and debate.

Now the Government is taking it one step further by lifting the ban on hand-to-hand combat roles,
allowing women to join frontline infantry units including the commandos and the SAS.

The move puts Australia into line with Israel, some European countries and our neighbour New
Zealand.

Women currently make up about 13 per cent of Australian defence force personnel and today's move is
part of a recruitment drive aimed at improving the gender imbalance. But the critics have come out
in force.

Kirstin Murray reports.

STUART ROBERT, LIBERAL MP: Is there where we want our sister and our mothers and our daughters to
be?

EVA COX, WOMEN'S ELECTORAL LOBBY: There's something basically ridiculous about it, and patronising
about it, about saying: "Oh, you know, we'll let women in here but we won't let them in there."

GREG COMBET, DEFENCE PERSONNEL MINISTER: This is about assessing at the end of the day, anyone's
physical capability to fulfil a particular role within the ADF.

KIRSTIN MURRAY, REPORTER: On the parched plains of Afghanistan Australian troops are facing their
bloodiest conflict since the Vietnam War.

The image of the frontline digger has always been exclusively male but now the Government's
considering a fundamental shift in Defence Force policy that could ultimately see women serve in
frontline combat.

GREG COMBET: It's extremely important that we send a signal to women that their role in valued
within the Australian Defence Force and their opportunity to participate in occupations is
considered on appropriate grounds.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Women already make up about 13 per cent of the permanent Defence Force ranks, but
those 7000 soldiers, sailors and air crew are limited to support roles.

In an effort to boost military recruitment, Defence Personnel Minister Greg Combet's calling for
new rules that would apply to every military job.

GREG COMBET: When this work is completed the Government will be in a position, along with the
Defence organisation and the defence leadership to make a better assessment of the capability of
individuals regardless of their gender.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Australia wouldn't be the first country to do so. Israeli women have served in
frontline units for decades and in country like Canada, Switzerland, Norway, even close neighbour
New Zealand, women serve in combat zones.

But in Australia women have been kept away on the basis they're not strong enough to cope.

STUART ROBERT: If we're going to look at putting women on the frontline we need to make sure we're
doing it for all the right reasons, that we're not doing it just because politically it might look
good.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Federal Liberal backbencher Stuart Robert, who served as an infantry officer for
nearly a decade before entering Parliament, says Greg Combet doesn't have the experience to mess
with military tradition.

STUART ROBERT: When he's never served there, when he's never parachuted in night in the rain, when
he's never carried a mortar base plate for 50 kilometres in a route march, when he's never spent
nights and nights without sleep, for him to stand there and give his opinion and to push the
Government into something is simply outrageous.

GREG COMBET: I'm pretty sure I wouldn't pass too many physical employment standards so I'll cop
that one but it's about developing a set of more objective criteria that are relevant to people's
capacity to perform a particular role in the ADF.

EVA COX: I think it's time we gave up these 19th century views that women have to either be
protected or that their presence is so threatening that they're going to undermine discipline.

NEIL JAMES, AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE ASSOCIATION: We're not really worried about this scientific analysis
because it's likely to bolster the existing standards rather than weaken them.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Neil James heads the Defence Association and draws an analogy with premier football
codes where women compete in separate competitions.

NEIL JAMES: The idea that you should throw all our females into frontline infantry combat is just
as silly as the idea that if you take out half the Wallabies team and replace them with the top
female rugby players.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: But NSW Labor MP Linda Voltz, who was one of the first women to join the regular
army, says that separation doesn't work anymore.

LINDA VOLTZ, NSW LABOR MP: Traditional warfare meant that there was a frontline where you could
define who infantry soldiers are. Modern warfare, where you're dealing with insurgencies means
there is no frontline.

So this idea that there's a certain frontline and women would be more at risk there is not
necessarily the case.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: US female defence personnel have told documentary makers their countries
restrictions don't work on the ground.

They're now relied on to perform tasks men can't, which means they often accidentally end up in
battle zones.

SGT. CYNTHIA ESPINOZA, HEAVY EQUIPMENT OPERATOR: First time I got shot at was a serious reality
check. I had rounds hit at about six inched above my head.

SHANNON MORGAN, MECHANIC: All of a sudden I looked and everybody was gone. I was the only one in
the street, there's insurgents all around me firing at me.

RANIE RUTHIG, MECHANIC: RPGs thrown at us and a couple of grenades chucked at us.

SHANNON MORGAN: Bullets everywhere.

CAPT. ANASTASIA BRESLOW, COMMUNICATIONS: There was a tow missile on top of the Humvee and I asked
the soldier, "Well how the heck do I fire that thing if one of you gets hurt?" I felt we needed to
know more.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: And when women are involved in combat they're still perceived as more vulnerable
than their male counterparts.

REPORTER: When US Army supply clerk Jessica Lynch's unit was captured during the Iraq invasion
there was more focus on her than her fellow male prisoners.

She was with a maintenance company that took a wrong turn and was ambushed nearly 10 days ago. Five
of her company were paraded as prisoners of war, they haven't been heard of since.

But the CIA found her in Saddam Hospital and as tanks and US marines launched an attack, central
command sent in helicopters, army rangers and navy seals.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: There's also the effect on public morale when women are captured.

NEIL JAMES: In the first Gulf War back in 1991 there were some female American personnel, largely
helicopter crews captured by the Iraqis, and a significant number of them were ramped.

That's a dreadful thing and it's obviously something that needs to be taken into account.

EVA COX: If you're in the army - you're in the army. I mean, the way that people who are captured
might be treated by other soldiers is really an issue for international rules of war, if anybody is
actually going to stick with them.

I think whoever gets to be a prisoner suffers some fairly horrendous type stuff and I just think
that's one of the risks you take.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: They're risks some Australian women might be willing to take but if the Government
is looking for support from the Opposition it can think again.

The Coalition says it won't support the move and argues the Australian public is not ready to see
Australian women take on the military roles currently reserved for men.

ALI MOORE: Looks like a long debate.