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SHOULD ARMY ALLOW WOMEN IN COMBAT?

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The Army's top official says there's a valid argument for assigning women to combat positions, but he'll leave that decision to the American people and Congress.

"If you want the best Army, you choose the best people to do it, regardless of sex," Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. said Sunday, after a retired female officer suggested a combat role for women might end the Army's sexual harassment problem.West and retired Maj. Lillian Pfluke appeared on ABC's "This Week." Retiring Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on NBC's "Meet The Press" that he opposed assigning women to front-line combat roles.

West said he wasn't suggesting a policy change because "the sensitivities of the American people," expressed through Congress, will decide the issue.

"So far the attitudes expressed through the Congress have been, `No. Not in direct ground combat,' " he said.

In 1993, based partly on the performance of women in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Congress greatly expanded the number of military assignments open to women, including jobs that can bring them indirectly into the line of fire. But the prohibition on women performing front-line combat roles was retained.

Pfluke, who was among the first female graduates of West Point, said real progress won't come until the Army changes its male-dominated culture.

"The problem is women are still totally excluded from any position that engages in direct ground combat," said Pfluke, a former maintenance officer who dealt with multiple-launch rocket systems. "So you have the `haves' and the `have-nots.'

"Any time you have two classes of people, you're going to have some kind of tension. You have some people thinking they're superior to the others," Pfluke said.

She suggested that much of the harassment "would be eradicated" if women were assigned to "direct ground combat positions. The Army's in the rather ludicrous position right now of choosing less-qualified men over more qualified-women."

Pfluke, who entered West Point in 1976 and retired last year with 15 years of service, said the Army has made some progress compared to her days at the academy. Then, she said, "We would be sexually harassed in subtle and not so subtle, and severe and very mild, ways almost every day."