By LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON (AP) - Army leaders have begun to study the prospect of sending female soldiers to the service's prestigious Ranger school - another step in the effort to broaden opportunities for women in the military.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, Army chief of staff, said Wednesday that he's asked senior commanders to provide him with recommendations and a plan this summer. And while he stressed that no decisions have been made, he suggested that Ranger school may be a logical next step for women as they move into more jobs closer to the combat lines.
"If we determine that we're going to allow women to go in the infantry and be successful, they are probably at some time going to have to go through Ranger school," Odierno told reporters. "If we decide to do this, we want the women to be successful."
According to Odierno, about 90 percent of senior Army infantry officers have gone to the school and are qualified as Rangers. Allowing women to go to Ranger school, he said, would allow them to be competitive with their male counterparts as they move through the ranks.
Going to Ranger school, however, does not automatically mean women would be allowed to serve in one of the Army's three elite Ranger battalions, which are Army special operations forces. In fact, many male soldiers who wear the coveted Ranger tab on their uniforms never actually serve in one of the three battalions.
Currently, women are not allowed to serve as special operations, infantry or armor forces, which are considered the most dangerous combat jobs. They are, however, allowed to serve in a number of support jobs such as medics, military police and intelligence officers that are sometimes attached to combat brigade units.
Odierno said his commanders are looking at whether the Army should open up infantry and armor jobs to women, and how that should be done.
As of this week, 200 women reported to nine different battalions around the country, as the Army implements plans to formally allow women to serve in smaller units that are closer to the front lines. New Pentagon rules allowing women to serve at the battalion level - rather than just the larger brigade - were unveiled earlier this year, opening up about 14,000 more jobs for women across all the military services. There are currently more than 250,000 positions that are closed to women.
A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops split into several battalions of about 800 soldiers each. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines and they often include top command and support staff, while battalions are usually in closer contact with the enemy.
Women make up about 16 percent of the Army.