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Lawmakers revisit debate over women in combat

Thirty-five women have died in the war in Iraq, despite a Pentagon policy banning them from serving on the front lines. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports on how some members of Congress hope to reduce that number.

In a war that has no front lines, women serving in the U.S. military in Iraq are often thrust into combat in a flash.

Although the Pentagon’s own policy prohibits women from serving in units that engage in direct ground combat, the insurgent war in Iraq has forced the Army to blur the lines. Many women are assigned to combat support units that put them directly into harm's way as military police, medics and truck drivers in military convoys — all frequent targets of suicide bombers.

Now, some in Congress want to make sure women in the military are kept out of harm's way.

"It's time for Congress to step in, provide some stability to the situation and draw a line of demarcation and ensure that women do not go into direct ground combat," says Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

A House amendment tacked onto the defense authorization bill would ban women from both combat and combat support units.

But in a letter to Congress, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody said the ban will "cause confusion in the ranks and send the wrong signal to the brave young men and women fighting the global war on terrorism. This is not the time to create such confusion."

There are about 9,000 U.S. Army women in Iraq. Banning them from combat support units could further stress the Army, already stretched thin in Iraq.

"27 percent of the Army's people are women right now, and it would devastate the Army," says Capt. Lori Manning, retired from the Navy and now director of the Women in the Military Project.

Despite the debate, Pentagon officials are confident Congress will leave the current policy as is — and U.S. military women on the front lines.

Two weeks ago, 18-year-old Sam Huff was buried with full military honors at Arlington cemetery — the latest female soldier to be killed in Iraq, and most likely, not the last.