Photo Gallery: High Fliers

The first women who flew military aircraft were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, this month in a highly anticipated ceremony at the Capitol. As aviators in noncombat roles, Women Airforce Service Pilots ferried and tested planes to free up male pilots for combat during World War II.

Women have earned the right to be in combat alongside their male counterparts in more aspects of military life since the 1940s. But they still are barred from being assigned to ground combat units. That could be about to change.

Last month, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said the military should review its policy outlining the role of women on the battlefield.

In congressional testimony in late February, Casey said, "I believe that it's time we take a look at what women are actually doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and to look at our policy."

He spoke a week after the Navy, with the support of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, unveiled plans to lift the ban on women serving in submarines.

A 1994 Defense Department policy states that women can be assigned to all positions where they are qualified, but excludes them from assignments to "units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground."

The then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin defined direct ground combat as "engaging an enemy on the ground with ... weapons while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force's personnel. Direct ground contact takes place well forward on the battlefield."

Defense acknowledged the rule hasn't stopped women from taking on combat tasks. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said during a February briefing that "even though the law prohibits them from deploying in combat units that are below the brigade level, clearly, effectively, many women in uniform are in combat situations every day."

Nearly 236,000 women have been deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Of those, 128 have been killed, with 68 of the deaths taking place under hostile conditions.

"Women will continue to be assigned to units and positions that may necessitate combat actions within the scope of their restricted positioning -- situations for which they are fully trained and equipped to respond," Defense spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told Government Executive.

A congressionally mandated 2007 report by the RAND Corp.'s National Defense Research Institute recommended that Defense revise its assignment policies to reflect the changing nature of warfare. "The focus on a defined enemy and the linear battlefield does fit the picture of traditional military operations but is inappropriate to Iraq," the report's summary stated.

While RAND stressed its "intent is not to prescribe policy," it asked the military to "consider whether the policy should remain focused on the assignment to units rather than the individual employment of women."

Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute said the fact that women face combat situations in war zones is not sufficient basis for expanding their combat roles. "Women fighting on the field are a commonplace and understood phenomenon," he said. "But what happens under an extraordinary set of circumstances and what is expected to become standard practice are separate questions."

He added he would be surprised if the Army moved forward on lifting the ban, citing the lack of a vocal advocacy community and the fact "there are physical strength requirements for infantry that don't go away."

But a former WASP who was honored at the recent Congressional Gold Medal ceremony said she saw no reason women should be banned from combat. Josephine Swift, 92, who became a WASP to follow the lead of a Navy pilot brother, said: "If we are allowed to take on the same duties, what's the difference between men and women these days? If women want to fight for their country, it should be their privilege."

Click here to view a photo gallery of the WASP's receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.

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