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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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Former Black Hawk pilot Duckworth rejects the frequent arguments against women in combat: "So, what if I get raped? Lots of male POWs have been raped, too. It's no worse than losing my legs or getting burned to death. Trust me to have the intelligence to assess the risks and decide to take them in order to have the amazing privilege of serving my country."

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Coughlin, the lawyer, expects that the lawsuit will have to confront many of these closely held cultural mores head-on: "I've found it best to take it really seriously. The problem with it is that it's the kind of argument that ends up, in fact, being deeply oppressive to women. It means you're not being allowed to do the very things that are the most prized in our culture – to die in the service of your nation is one of the highest virtues that we know. Excluding women from that possibility means that we're not full citizens."

The lawsuit will also address fears of "misplaced chivalry," Coughlin says of the notion that if a female soldier is in danger on the battlefield, her male counterparts will rush to save her instead of fighting intelligently.

"If a male soldier is protecting other males he gets the medal of honor, but if he does it for females it somehow becomes an act of crazed chivalry that places national security in danger?" she asks. "Are female lives worth more than male lives?"

Barred from combat; doing it anyway

Certainly men and women have been equally at risk throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spc. Monica Lin Brown was an Army medic whose platoon leader admitted that the troops in the unit "weren't supposed to take her out" on missions throughout a dangerous Afghan province, "but we had to because we had no other medic."

During that time, Lin was "one of the guys," Lt. Martin Robbins told The Washington Post, "mixing it up, clearing rooms, doing everything that everybody else was doing." And in one notable case, more.

When her unit came under fire in 2007, Brown ran through gunfire to fellow soldiers who'd been gravely injured in a roadside bombing, using her body to shield one of the wounded when they came under fire from insurgents. For repeatedly risking her life in battle, Brown was awarded a Silver Star, only the second woman since World War II to earn the nation's third-highest combat medal.

She was following in the footsteps of Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, a military police officer with the Kentucky National Guard who led her team through a "kill zone" in Iraq after insurgents ambushed her convoy in 2005. After assaulting a trench line, according to US military accounts, she cleared two trenches with grenades and killed three insurgents with her M4 rifle.

Yet, even as they are awarded such commendations for valor, women are still officially barred from combat: A few days after the acts that would earn her the Silver Star, superiors pulled Brown out of the remote camp where she was serving.

One of the soldiers that Brown saved later told CBS that he still believes women have no business on the front lines of combat – feelings that continue to be, if not pervasive, then at least common within the ranks.

These beliefs are most often based on questions of simple physical strength: Can women perform the tasks necessary to keep themselves and their comrades in arms safe on the battlefield? Will letting them into the ranks of, say, infantry units or SOF mean lowering the standards for everyone?

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