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Women in combat: US military on verge of making it official

Women in combat: De facto warriors in Afghanistan and Iraq, women are now closer than ever to the "profession of combat arms." The US military is opening jobs to them closer to the battlefield, and they are pushing to abolish job limits through legal battles.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / July 1, 2012

Women in combat: Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt (center) talks with Capt. Ryan Roper (l.) and Capt. Jordan Richardson at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro N.C. She is the first female jet fighter pilot in US history and the first woman to command an active-duty fighter wing. This is the cover story of the July 2 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine.

Photo by James Robinson/Special to TCSM;Illustration by John Kehe/Staff

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In the opening days of America's war in Afghanistan, Capt. Allison Black's AC-130H gunship thundered low through the night sky. Below, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) were fighting alongside Northern Alliance warlords.

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A navigator with the Air Force 1st Special Operations Group, Black was strapped in behind the pilots on a flight deck bristling with radios, gauges, and monitors that kept her in constant contact with SOF forces on the ground, helping them identify targets. It was Black giving the final "clear to fire" consent for the crew to release a barrage from a Gatling gun and other artillery on Taliban forces.

And it was Black's voice that special operators on the ground heard as they fought. Afghan soldiers overheard the chatter, too. On a mission over the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz in 2001, one particularly fierce warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, "found it amazing" that a woman was directing fire on the Taliban forces, says Black. "He thought it was so hilarious. He asked, 'Is that a woman?' "

When SOF fighters confirmed it was, Dostum, she says, was incredulous – and impressed: "America is so determined to kill the Taliban that they send women," he said.

Then, as Black called in another round of fire, Dostum dialed enemy fighters by phone, so they, too, could hear her voice on his walkie-talkie: "He really berated them, saying 'You're so pathetic, American women are killing you. You need to surrender now,' " Black says.

Taliban forces did surrender the next morning, and the first female navigator to open fire in combat came to be known as the "Angel of Death" among the Afghans. That battle – and others – also made Black, now a major, the first woman to earn the Air Force's combat action medal.

Today, US military officials concede that despite prohibitions against women serving in combat – and despite efforts in some cases to keep women far from fighting – there are no defined front lines.

A decade after Black flew her first mission in America's war in Afghanistan, the ranks of women in the military are growing: They now make up 16 percent of the force, a number that is expected to grow to one-quarter by 2025.

And after a decade of war in which women increasingly play de facto combat roles across the armed services, the Pentagon is now considering opening up more jobs for women that will bring them ever closer to the battlefield.

It's a highly controversial prospect and the Pentagon is proceeding cautiously. In an early step last February, military officials rejected a congressional commission's recommendation that prohibitions on women in combat be lifted, announcing instead that they would be open, on a trial basis, 14,000 jobs previously closed to female service members.

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