WASHINGTON - Breaking with several leaders in his party, Senator Scott Brown yesterday urged Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to allow women to serve in combat, saying the nation has an obligation to provide greater opportunities for female troops who, like their male counterparts, have sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brown, a lieutenant colonel and 32-year veteran of the Massachusetts National Guard, told Panetta in a letter that a recent decision to permit women to serve in some units closer to the front did not go far enough.
“We have an obligation to expand the professional opportunities available to women, especially considering their sacrifices,’’ said Brown, a Republican who sits on the Armed Services Committee, citing the 140 female service members who have been killed in battle zones since 2001.
Some Republicans, including presidential candidate Rick Santorum, have denounced efforts to integrate women closer to the front, saying it would undermine discipline and distract soldiers.
Brown took that argument head on yesterday: “Doing so, in my view, would improve military effectiveness, not detract from it,’’ he said.
Brown, who is facing a tough Democratic challenge for reelection, faced fallout from some women’s groups for cosponsoring a controversial bill that would allow employers, based on their religious or moral beliefs, to limit health care coverage, including for contraception and in vitro fertilization.
An adviser to one of Brown’s opponents, former Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, labeled the timing of Brown’s letter ironic and hinted it might have been timed to soften some of that criticism.
Warren believes women in the armed forces should be allowed to serve in all positions.
Many Democrats agree, but Republicans have been reluctant to expand women’s roles.
Santorum recently set off a minor firestorm when he criticized Panetta’s decision.
“I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people may naturally do things that may not be in the interest of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved,’’ Santorum told CNN.
Presidential campaign advisers for Mitt Romney did not respond to a request for comment on the former Massachusetts governor’s stance on the issue.
Other leading Republicans, including Vietnam veteran and Senate Armed Services Committee member John McCain, have expressed deep reservations about opening all combat positions to women. McCain, who is traveling overseas, was not available for comment, according to his spokesman, Brian Rogers.
Earlier this month, Panetta modified a 1994 policy to open nearly 14,000 positions to women, including mechanics and radar operators for combat units. In some cases, the ruling will also permit women to serve as intelligence officers and communications specialists in front-line units. However, women are still barred from serving as infantry soldiers, in tank crews, or as members of special forces teams.
Panetta pledged to study the issue further.
Brown has now joined a growing chorus of lawmakers, most of them Democrats, who want Panetta to expand the combat roles of women without delay.
“We should not waste time endlessly studying this issue and getting bogged down in bureaucratic red tape,’’ Brown told Panetta yesterday.
He also argued that women might otherwise be held back from promotion.
“Closing these opportunities to women affect[s] their ability to develop a career path in the military and advance to higher ranks,’’ Brown wrote.
Several specialists said the debate is increasingly irrelevant as the line between combat and support troops has steadily blurred in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where terrorists and insurgents wielding roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, and suicide vests operate within the civilian population. Women have been killed in combat in both wars and on numerous occasions exchanged fire with and killed insurgents.
The military has also relied on Female Engagement Teams serving with special forces to enlist the help of Afghan women to assist in identifying enemy forces. Brown highlighted those teams in his letter to Panetta as evidence that the Pentagon can “take a more aggressive approach to offering additional opportunities to our women in uniform.’’
Brown’s stance could help him in his bid for reelection, said Elisabeth Armstrong, assistant professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College in Northampton. “It is an issue for women voters,’’ she said.
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.