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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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Haring, for her part, says she believes that the Pentagon's combat exclusion policy has prevented her from reaching the highest ranks of her chosen profession. "You'll never see a division or corps commander who is a woman, because at that level they always select the most senior leader from the combat arms – and we can't get into the combat arms," she says.

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Yet the historic lawsuit she has filed is not one that she has entered into lightly. She discussed what to do with both male and female classmates from her West Point days, where she graduated in 1984. "We went back and forth about it, and traded stories about it."

Haring says she has been touched by the e-mails and Facebook messages that have poured in. Women "always share a story about how the combat exclusion has limited their careers in ways I didn't even imagine," she adds. "Just so many little stories that add up to this institutional discrimination that bars women from reaching the highest levels of the military."

Special operations officers – all men – have contacted her to say " 'You're fighting the good fight.' I was shocked."

Haring has also been harshly criticized on blogs and in letters to the editor, and admits that she occasionally struggles with the implications of the lawsuit. "This idea that I'm pushing women into combat – what does that do for women?" she wonders.

Crucible of combat

Change continues to come gradually, millennia after Plato argued in The Republic that "what has to do with war must be assigned to women also, and they must be used in the same ways" – and centuries after women first disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.

In 2008, the Army nominated the first woman, later approved by Congress, to the rank of four-star general. In March, the Senate confirmed the first woman to become a four-star general in the Air Force. Last month, Army Chief of Staff Odierno announced that the service is studying the possibility of allowing women to attend the Army's elite Ranger School. Results of the study will be announced this summer.

For her part, Duckworth, still a National Guardsman, is running for Congress in her home district of Illinois after serving as the No. 2 official in the Department of Veterans Affairs. If she is elected in November, she will become Congress's first female combat veteran.

She is optimistic that her female compa-triots will join her in elected office. "I hope my sisters will be able to take what they learned in the military and what they learned in the crucible of combat and become leaders in civilian life as well." She hopes, too, that more veterans in Congress – male and female – will lead to greater scrutiny of war.

"The next war we get into, I would be able to stand on my artificial limbs on the floor of the House and question whether this is in the best interest of the nation – and maybe it is – and not have my patriotism questioned, or be dismissed as a typical female Democrat who doesn't want to spend money on defense," Duckworth says. "People know I'm willing to die for my ­country."•

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