WASHINGTON - Female troops fighting and bleeding and dying on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed the way many in the Pentagon and Capitol Hill - including those at the very top ranks - view their abilities.
That experience, more than anything else, explains the historic change in policy signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Some officers who headed to war had to leave behind women who had been key members of their staffs, said Maren Leed, an expert on military strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former adviser to senior leaders at the Pentagon. Others, while in war zones, had to wrestle with compromising their unit's effectiveness by leaving women behind when they went on missions.
"The policies were just not consistent with the way warfare had changed," Leed said.
More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and 152 of them have died.
Dempsey's aha moment occurred when he led the 1st Armored Division as a two-star general in Baghdad in 2003. He hopped into a Humvee, chatted with his driver and then slapped the leg of the turret gunner.
"Who are you?" Dempsey asked. "And she leaned down and said, "I'm Amanda." And I said, 'Ah, OK.' So, female turret gunner protecting division commander. And it's from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it. "
It took 10 years, but that something has happened. With strokes from their pens, Dempsey and Panetta on Thursday opened 237,000 jobs previously barred to women. Most of the posts are in ground-combat units.
That the move has been greeted more as a foregone conclusion than a controversy says a lot.
Ask Peter Chiarelli, who retired last year as the Army's No. 2 officer, had commanded troops in Iraq and also served as then-Defense secretary Robert Gates' military adviser at the height of the fighting.
"Yes I support it," he said in an e-mail. "It is about time!"
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, Army veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that the new policy reflects what's happening on modern warfare.
"The reality is that there are women pilots, military police units commanded by women officers," Reed said. "They've distinguished themselves on the battlefield."
Now the Pentagon bureaucracy will churn out the papers and policies over the next four years to move women even closer to the fight. Each service must submit its plan by May, and all of the jobs - unless an exemption is approved by the Defense secretary - must be opened by 2016.
Look for some of the first changes in the Army, which has about 120,000 of its 550,000 active-duty slots open to women. Infantry, artillery and armored formations account for most of the closed spots. Overall, women make up about 15% of the Army's soldiers.
Combat engineers - soldiers who build things and blow up others - will be among the first to be open to women. Field artillery, too, is likely to welcome women soon.
The change in policy, said Lt. Gen. Robert Bromberg, the Army's top officer for personnel, represents "a great opportunity to make the Army better." Every soldier, man or woman, will have to meet standards required to do their jobs.
Gen. Robert Cone, who leads the Army's training and doctrine command, said he looked to the Israeli military and its experience integrating its forces with women. Women, for instance, drive its armored vehicles. That might be a post for women in the U.S. Army, too, he said.
Eventually, when standards are developed that both men and women must achieve to become Rangers, that elite unit will probably be opened to women, too. Cone, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, believes some women have what it takes to pass the rigorous course.
"I bet you will find women who meet their standards," he said.