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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.

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"For me, I see it as talent management: I want to utilize the best talent I have," says the Army's top officer, Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno. "That's what has driven us to it: The women have proven it to us."

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It's an acknowledgment that has been slow in coming within the US military but undeniable in America's murky counterinsurgency wars of the past decade, say senior Pentagon officials.

'Nose to nose with the bad guys'

As Congress was considering – yet again – the feasibility of women in combat through its 2011 Military Leadership Diversity Commission, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Peterson voiced the standard concern: "Here's my problem: We're talking about ground combat, nose to nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what's on your back, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you have seen how infantrymen, the ground troopers, live – and how many of you would volunteer to live like that?"

"I've lived like that. I've lived out there with the guys," answered Illinois National Guard Lt. Col. Tammy Duckworth from her wheelchair. "Mad Dog 06" – her call sign in 2004 when she was a National Guard captain – lost both legs at the helm of a Black Hawk helicopter shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq's notoriously violent Sunni Triangle.

"When I'm asked if the country is ready for women in combat, I look down at where my legs used to be and think, 'Where do you think this happened, a bar fight?' " she says. "I'm pretty sure it was combat."

Duckworth had wanted to be part of the fighting in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; and as a member of the National Guard, being a pilot was one of the few paths to a combat job for a woman.

She has not been alone in her experiences out there with her male comrades: The Pentagon's 1994 combat exclusion policy means that women can be "attached" to infantry units, in military parlance, but never permanently "assigned" to them. And so women are attached to SOF units in female engagement teams (FETs), for example, or to infantry units in jobs that include mechanics and drivers.

These are moves that put women in combat, but never officially recognize them for being there, notes retired Gen. Lester Lyles, who chaired the Military Leadership Diversity Commission. His entire panel ultimately came to the same conclusion and last year recommended lifting the prohibitions on women in combat. "We know that [the combat exclusion policy] hinders women from promotion," Lyles says. "We want to take away all the hindrances and cultural biases."

Pentagon officials promised to "thoroughly evaluate" the congressional commission's recommendation, but ultimately decided not to lift the combat exclusion policy. Yet even though the military agreed to open 14,000 jobs to women – in such areas as tank mechanic and intelligence officers "attached" to infantry units – there are still 250,000 military jobs closed to women .

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