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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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Jobs newly open to women do not represent "a big change, and it didn't in any way, shape, or form eliminate this structural barrier" to advancement for many women, says Army Reserve Col. Ellen Haring. She has had a 28-year career – from West Point to the upper officer echelons – and says she will advance no further because her jobs have been "limited to support positions with no possibility to compete within the combat arms" – military parlance for infantry and artillery jobs on the front lines of battle.

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She was selected in May as a plaintiff in a lawsuit demanding that women be allowed to fight in combat.

"This was really a soul-searching kind of process. I don't want to see anybody in combat, frankly," she says of her difficult decision to join the suit at the height of her career. But, she hopes the suit "will just be one more angle of attack on a really discriminatory policy that is completely un-American."

Culturally, the lawsuit – the first of its kind – strikes at the heart of conceptions of women in American society.

"There are arguments that the public is going to be so much more distressed by women being killed or taken prisoners of war that they will not support the war effort if they see it happening," says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville whose research led to the litigation.

The most vociferous arguments against women on the battlefield are often rooted in closely held beliefs about chivalry, femininity, and virtue.

"It is the notion that there is something more precious about motherhood and womanhood and domesticity and femininity that often drives the resistance to opening combat to women," Ms. Coughlin notes.

These are concerns that Black – the "Angel of Death" – understands, and that she confronted head-on in her training to become a gunship crew member. They included "ugly" scenarios, she says, like the possibility of being taken prisoner of war and the threat of being raped.

Black recalls a training exercise scenario with a fellow classmate in which she had been captured: "If a guy and a gal are captured together and they ask the guy for information, he's going to give his rank and serial number. If he doesn't give them more information, they're going to hit the woman. We try to do a really good job at teaching and exposing our air crews to those scenarios. We tell them, 'Hey, they know what your values are – and here are some ways to avoid it affecting you.' "

The fictitious captors told Black's classmate that he'd better give them the intelligence they wanted or "We're going to beat her," she recalls. "He just looked at me and said to them, 'Go ahead.' I looked at him and said, 'Thanks, buddy.'

"As a woman, I would be devastated if any man gave up information to protect me," Black says. "I would expect to be whooped up on and potentially raped – just like the guys do. It happens to them, too.

"I get the political landscape [of combat reality]," Black acknowledges. "I don't know if any administration wants to deliver women who are killed in combat. We raise our young boys to respect women, to open the doors for women, to be their protector. I like that about our country – I love that," she says. "But I also believe that women are just as capable as men, and shouldn't be denied that opportunity if they want the job and can do the job."

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