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Trump's SecAF Pick May Signal Openness to Women in Combat

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Heather Wilson is seen in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Heather Wilson is seen in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf, File)

President Donald Trump's choice for the next Air Force secretary could be a signal to troops that neither he nor Defense Secretary James Mattis intend to impose a ban on women in combat.

Heather Wilson, a former congresswoman and Air Force Academy graduate, hasn't directly advocated for women on the front lines -- indeed, she once raised doubts about lifting the ban on female troops serving in direct combat arms positions. But she has aggressively backed the need for women in combat support roles, according to congressional testimony from 2005.

Wilson was elected in 1998 to represent New Mexico's 1st Congressional District and at the time was the first and only female veteran serving in Congress.

During a spirited debate more than a decade ago over whether the U.S. should move to ban military women from serving and supporting their male counterparts on the front lines, Wilson had no intention of letting the subject whittle away just because male members in Congress believed "good men protect women" -- and not the other way around.

"Good women want freedom, too, and will fight for it," the former Air Force captain said, according to a New York Daily News story from May 19, 2005.

Committee members were concerned over the rising casualty rates for women serving in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At that time, nearly 40 women had been killed and 250 wounded during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Prior to the hearing, the House had last debated the issue of women in combat in 1979, according to the Center for Military Readiness.

While Wilson was skeptical of lifting the ban on women serving directly in combat, such as infantry and artillery roles, she said it was "silly" and "offensive" to limit the women already serving as medics, drivers, military police, engineers and even other roles such as Female Engagement Teams -- which were vital in advising and collecting information from local families in the Middle East without breaking cultural norms.

The idea "just doesn't make sense," she said at the time. "We can't meet our recruiting needs now."

Lawmakers "ultimately abandoned" the provision, according to Congressional Quarterly's issue tracker on women in the military.

"This was unnecessary and unhelpful," Wilson said of the back-and-forth negotiations. "There will be no restrictions in statute for how the Army can assign women in the military."

The congresswoman later ran in 2008 for a Senate seat, but lost during the primary election.

This month, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he would support the current policy on women in combat roles. "I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military," he said.

Mattis said that he would be guided by strict adherence to standards. "The standards are the standards and, when people meet the standards, that's the end of the discussion on that," he said.

"Today, over 15 percent of today's active-duty force is female. Our military could not accomplish its missions without these women. As we ask more from our female enlisted members and officers, we owe them more as well," Mattis said. He noted that as a commander he had not hesitated in putting women on the front lines with men.

Wilson graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1982, part of the third class to include women, according to a White House statement.

If confirmed, she would be the third woman to serve in the role after Deborah Lee James, who served under President Barack Obama, and Sheila E. Widnall, who served under President Bill Clinton's administration.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Wilson is a former captain in the U.S. Air Force.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

Related Video:

Two Minute Brief: Women in the U.S. Military

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Headlines Air Force Women in the Military Donald Trump Oriana Pawlyk Richard Sisk

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