Iowa National Guardsman Alexis Trucke was amused Wednesday to hear that the Pentagon is about to end its ban on women serving in combat units.
“I think it's a little ironic and kind of funny,” she said. “Because I was already in combat.”
Trucke, now 20, served in Afghanistan during 2010 and 2011, assigned to an all-female team that accompanied male guardsmen in combat zones to search and question Afghan women. The female soldiers carried guns, went on foot patrols and pulled security duty.
Trucke is one of more than 20,000 U.S. women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, operating under a 1994 rule that opened most military jobs to women — but still blocked them from combat artillery, armor and infantry roles.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to overturn that rule today, potentially allowing women into more than 200,000 positions on the front lines and possibly jobs with elite commando units. The change will be phased in over the next three years.
It's possible that some specific jobs could remain closed to women, but those who have pushed to end the combat exclusion policy hailed the news.
“I'm astonished that they're doing it the right way. Hooray!” said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who heads the Women in the Military project for the Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington, D.C.
The wars of the past decade have served as major proving grounds for American military women. Despite the 1994 rule, many found themselves in combat situations while performing their jobs as drivers, medics and other “noncombat” roles.
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In wars where the enemy was more likely to attack a support convoy than take on an infantry platoon, U.S. servicewomen fought, bled and died. In the process, they challenged the long-held stereotypes of their mostly male counterparts and blurred distinctions that the military had traditionally drawn between the sexes.
Retired Brig. Gen. Roma Amundson of the Nebraska National Guard said there was no point avoiding the reality on the ground. More than 140 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and women have earned 865 Purple Hearts.
“Women are in combat, no matter what,” Amundson said. “This just finally lifts the restrictions on that, and it allows them to be viewed as equal to the men in terms of their combat situation.”
Under long-standing policies, women were “attached” to a combat unit instead of “assigned” to it — and thus were not eligible for combat decorations or other special recognition.
Panetta's change is expected to help women climb the military ranks. Female service members have struggled to gain promotions in part because of their lack of combat experience.
Women make up 14 percent of 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel.
Under Panetta's decision, the armed forces can ask for special waivers for any positions they want to restrict to men only. Manning said such exemptions are likely to require the military to prove that no woman can perform a particular task.
“I think the bar is going to be very high on getting that exemption,” she said.
Roger Lempke, former top commander of the Nebraska Guard, said the time for change had come. He noted that both the first and third Nebraska National Guard soldiers killed in Iraq were women. And many other women served with distinction, he said.
That included Jenny Bos, who won a Bronze Star for valor after her trucking convoy was ambushed in Iraq in 2005. She pulled a wounded soldier to safety and helped rally the convoy, moving it out of the kill zone.
In wars with no front line, Bos said, everyone is serving in combat.
“The ban isn't relevant to today's war on terror,” said Bos, a 29-year-old staff sergeant and a grade school teacher in Columbus, Neb. “It's been out of date since the war began.”
For Korean War veteran Dennis Pavlik, it's hard to get used to the expanded role of women in the military. A former prisoner of war, he thinks back to his own wartime service and wonders, for example, whether a woman could carry a wounded man out of harm's way.
He's quick to add that he doesn't mean any offense. He knows that some women are strong enough and tough enough to get the job done. “And not all men hold their own up,” he added.
When it comes down to it, Pavlik just isn't comfortable with the idea of women fighting and dying alongside men.
“It's man's nature to take care of a woman,” he said. “You don't want to see them get hurt.”
But Pavlik, 80, said he realizes that younger generations have different ideas.
Manning said she understands Pavlik's concerns. Veterans who have seen ground combat, she said, know that war is hell.
“There's a lot of gallantry in some of them,” she said. “They'd like to protect other people from that.”
Trucke said it was “a little awkward” at times in Afghanistan working with an infantry unit.
“Once they got to know me, they realized that I was pretty much one of them,” she said. “They didn't have a choice — I was going to be there regardless.”
Later, Trucke said, some of the guys told her that they were surprised she was able to walk as far or carry as much as she did.
“I'm not as strong as the average male in the military,” she acknowledged. “But I'm a farm girl. We had to carry buckets of grain.”
Lempke, now serving as military affairs director for Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said the women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan performed at the same level as men.
“They were battle tough. They were mentally tough,” Lempke said. “I don't see anything that women can't do in our armed forces today.”
This report includes material from World-Herald press services.
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