By Jim Michaels, Tom Vanden Brook and William M. Welch
The thought of women dodging bullets and bombs in combat may have seemed jarringly out of place in earlier eras of Doughboys and G.I. Joes and the wars of the previous century.
But for anyone familiar with today's troops and the missions they face - or who has paused to read the names of this nation's combat casualties - the historic move by the Pentagon to open up front-line roles to women is hardly a shock.
OFFICIALS: Panetta opens combat roles to women
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, plans to announce today that the U.S. military is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, senior Pentagon officials said Wednesday. The move would open hundreds of thousands of military positions to women, said one official who spoke anonymously because Panetta had not yet made the announcement.
Women are serving and have been serving in uniform alongside their male counterparts in Afghanistan and did so in Iraq for much of the past decade, even as their theoretical fitness to serve was debated back home. Although officially in support roles, the distinction ultimately made little difference to the 152 female U.S. troops who have died while deployed in those two wars.
"We've always had women in combat zones," says Pat Murphy, a retired Air Force colonel who served in Vietnam and is president of the Air Force Women Officers Associated.
In recent years, the necessities of war - and an all-volunteer military - have propelled women into jobs as medics, military police, intelligence officers and other roles, often attached to units on the front lines. Many female troops carry guns on patrols in Afghanistan, often to deal with and search local women and families encountered by U.S. forces.
Women make up 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel. Whether they fire a weapon or not, they've been targets of the enemy, just like their male colleagues.
The services will have until January 2016 to implement the changes. Military services may seek special exceptions to the new policy if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.
"The reality of today's battlefield is that all who serve are in combat," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee and supporter of the change.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is living proof of what many have viewed as a distinction without a difference when it comes to women and men serving in war zones.
Duckworth lost both legs flying a helicopter in combat in Iraq in 2004 and went on to win her congressional seat. In welcoming the change, she said, "Throughout American history and in the last decade in particular, women have served in combat zones with distinction and honor."
Another combat veteran, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former pilot held prisoner during the Vietnam War, supported the move, too.
"American women are already serving in harm's way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces," McCain said. "As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world."
'The right thing to do'
Panetta's move changes a Pentagon policy restricting women from serving in combat that was last modified in 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service. Under that policy, women could not be assigned below the brigade level - a unit of about 3,500 troops - to fight on the ground. Effectively, that has barred women from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers and special operations units of about 700 troops or fewer.
Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, said the move will put women on equal footing with men in competing for higher rank. He called it "the right thing to do."
Noting that the chiefs of the services unanimously support the change in policy, the senior defense official said the various branches will develop plans for allowing women to seek combat positions. Some jobs may open as soon as this year. Assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force, might take longer. The military chiefs are to report back to Panetta with implementation plans by May 15.
Women currently serve in a number of combat positions, as Duckworth did, including piloting warplanes or serving on ships in combat areas. Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, almost 290,000 women have served in those combat zones out of a total of almost 2.5 million, Pentagon records show.
The move comes as Panetta prepares to leave office. Obama has nominated Republican former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran, to take his place.
The policy change requires notifying Congress, which must have 30 days to consider it. Though leading lawmakers in both parties offered statements Wednesday supporting the change, support for the move was not unanimous.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Marine officer, said the decision "is totally out of left field."
"The question you've got to ask yourself every single time you make a change like this is: Does it increase the combat effectiveness of the military? ... I think the answer is no. Are you going to have the (Navy) build different toilet facilities every time you have to move your outpost?"
But the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said that "women have demonstrated a wide range of capabilities in combat operations, and we welcome this review."
Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, blasted the shift as placing "social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness."
Not all combat veterans were enthusiastic, either.
Eric Pidcock, who was a specialist in the infantry in Iraq six years ago, said carrying the heavy gear of an infantry soldier can be difficult, and being able to do so in the heat of combat is even harder. He said if women can meet the same standards as men, they should be allowed to serve in the infantry, but he said he doubts many can meet that test.
"Are there women that can do that?" he asked. "Can the average female soldier carry the average infantryman? Sure, there are women that can, but they are few and far between."
Alex Hatfield, an Army enlisted man serving in Vilseck, Germany, said he has concerns.
"Women pose an emotional conundrum to men," he said. "Everyone knows it. We don't understand how women think, what they feel or why."
In a controversial article last year in the Marine Corps Gazette, Capt. Katie Petronio, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said women were not physically suited for infantry roles. In the article, titled "Get over it! We are not all created equal," Petronio also said women were not clamoring for jobs in the infantry.
She wrote: "Can women endure the physical and physiological rigors of sustained combat operations, and are we willing to accept the attrition and medical issues that go along with integration?"
Retired Army reservist Linda Brashears, who served in Iraq, said female soldiers already face danger in combat zones. She suffered a brain injury during a mortar attack in 2006 on a U.S. post in Baghdad, despite being assigned to a postal unit.
Brashears, who lives near Chicago, said she wouldn't want to serve in a front-line infantry unit. But many will welcome the opportunity, she said, especially those who "don't want to be told they can't do it because of their sex."
"There's a lot of people think we should still be sitting behind a desk, but the world is changing," said Brashears, 58, a former staff sergeant. Still, she said, women may find it "really hard to be accepted" in male-dominated combat units.
Army Spc. Heather Wood, who was in Afghanistan in 2010 as a military police officer, said qualified women should be allowed the opportunity.
"They should be allowed to do what they want," she said. "Heck, there are males out there that can't handle being shot at."
Former Army sergeant Chantel Razack, a security guard at Fort Gordon, Ga., served three tours in Iraq as a military police officer. While there, the unit she supported faced more losses than any unit since the Vietnam War. She lost two female colleagues.
"For our job, it's not anything new," Razack said. "When I joined in 2000, they told me an MP would be one of the places where a female would see combat - that and a medic. We did the same job as our male counterparts."
Razack was lead gunner during her second deployment and said she lifted her .50-caliber weapon to its mount just as the men did.
"I was as close to being infantry as a woman could get," she said. "We were treated just like the men."
Claudia Kennedy, 65, was filled with pride by the news. The former three-star Army general who retired 12 years ago after 32 years in service was among the first women in that branch to lead men as a company commander in 1973.
She remembers well what happened some years before during Vietnam War. "I called to ask if I could go to Vietnam and they said, 'No, what would you do there?'"
Panetta's action, she says, "makes me very proud of the men and women who serve today and have proven that they work as a team and that they do not think that gender is more important than confidence."
Women have more than proven they are up to the task, she said: "What this change in policy would do is say, collectively, we really do believe that if you're tough enough and you can do it, you'll do it. The bigger picture is that our commander in chief has trust and confidence in everybody who is in uniform."
Contributing: Kelly Kennedy, Melanie Eversley, Gregg Zoroya, Catalina Camia