ARMY Capt. Linda Bray's Panama-invasion task was to secure an attack-dog kennel near the Comandancia, Gen. Manuel Noriega's headquarters. But when heavily armed Panamanian Defense Forces opened fire, the operation turned into a three-hour firefight - making Captain Bray the first woman to lead US Army troops in battle. By all reports, Bray's performance was stellar - cool and collected. It opens up an old debate about women in the military: Should they be allowed to perform combat roles?
Currently, women may not serve in Army combat units. They may provide backup support to troops, or, as in Bray's case, serve in the military police. The Panama invasion showed that during an attack those distinctions can get blurred. Nor did the women let the men down. One soldier in Bray's platoon felt the women did better than several of the men.
Women in the military have been taking tougher jobs, breaking stereotypes, showing stamina and endurance. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado plans to offer a bill to set up an Army unit preparing women to engage in direct (simulated, we hope) combat. The unit would test, for four years, the kinds of combat women can realistically perform.
The Army now makes distinctions between ``combat'' and ``battle'' roles. The assumption is that it's one thing to fight a battle (policewomen have proven they can do this). It is another thing to be in the field for weeks at a time, under duress, carrying out night patrols, doing tasks that require constant heavy lifting (such as carrying wounded soldiers), and being engaged in protracted fighting. An Army test unit might define the reasonable boundaries.
There's another reason to consider the idea - equity. As women have filled many Army noncombat jobs, one in four males may see combat versus the old ratio of one in eight. Thus the laudable objective of opening the military to more women - which has relieved men's defense burden - has put male soldiers at greater proportional risk.
What shouldn't be forgotten, however, is the courageous role women have always played in leading the fight against war.