SAN DIEGO — During her time in Iraq, Alma Felix would see her fellow female soldiers leave the Army installations where she worked at a desk job and head into combat with their male counterparts. But many returned home feeling that few knew of their contributions.
“We disappear into the background,” the 27-year-old former Army specialist said. “You always hear we’re losing our sons out there. And although women have fallen out there, you really don’t see very much of it.”
Now, with the Pentagon ending its ban on women in combat, Felix and other female troops hope the military’s plan to open hundreds of thousands of combat jobs to them will lead society to recognize that they, too, can be courageous warriors.
“We are the support. Those are the positions we fill and that’s a big deal – we often run the show – but people don’t see that,” she said. “Maybe it will put more females forward and give people a sense there are women out there fighting for our country.
“It’s not just you’re typical poster boy, GI Joes doing it,” she said.
Thursday’s announcement promises to change the image of battlefields around the world, as debate rages on whether women can fight like men. What’s clear is that the move will pave the way for women to earn higher pay and earn better promotions.
The shift is the military’s biggest since the policy banning openly gay service members was lifted two years ago. And as was the case with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” troops were expected to fall in line with the new rules.
The change overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units, and is expected to open up more than 230,000 combat positions that have been off limits to women.
“We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He said women have shown they are willing to fight and die alongside their male counterparts.
Across the country, members of the military of both sexes said they accepted the policy so long as women will have to meet the same standards as their male colleagues. Both men and women were skeptical about putting females in infantry units, however.
“This gives us more people to work with,” said Army Sgt. Jeremy Grayson, assigned to field infantry at Fort Bliss, Texas. “But they would have to be able to do the physical stuff that men do ... They have to be able to pull their own weight.”
Panetta said the qualifications will not be lowered and acknowledged that not all women will meet them. He said allowing women to serve in combat roles will strengthen the ability of the U.S. to win wars.
It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army’s Delta Force.
Veterans and some in the military argue the public may not be ready to handle seeing more female troops come home in body bags or with lost limbs. “It’s harder to see a mother or a daughter dead. We (men) are seen as protectors,” said Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Lemaitre.
Army Spc. Jean Sardonas, who works as a lab technician at a hospital, said she understood Lemaitre’s opinion.
Sardonas said she had thought about joining an Army team that conducts social work in the field and faces combat situations. But she’s since become a mother, changing her perspective, and said women tend to be more emotional.
“If you see the enemy, well, that’s the enemy, but now if you see a kid with a gun you’re going to think twice,” she said.
Paul Murphy, an 88-year-old Navy veteran in the Denver area who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea in 1945, doesn’t think women should be in combat because of the reaction back home.
“I don’t think the loved ones at home (believe that) females should be allowed to be killed by the enemy,” said Murphy, who was among only about 300 out of a crew of nearly 1,200 who survived after his ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.
Felix bristles at that kind of thinking but has heard that from young male soldiers who have told her they don’t want to see a woman get hurt on the battlefield. “It’s hard to see any comrade fall, whether it’s a woman or a man,” she said.
Women comprise about 14 percent of 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. And of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
The New York veteran who started the nation’s first Veteran of Foreign Wars post for women said she had no problem with them being considered for the elite units, as long as they meet the stringent requirements and that the standards are not lowered for them.
Making allowances for a female soldier would be “a detriment to the team,” said Marlene Roll, who served with an Army Reserve medical unit during the first Gulf War. But, she added, “If she can make it through the course and she can graduate, hell yeah.”
Female veterans hope those who follow in their footsteps appreciate the opportunities.
Linda L. Bray said her male superiors were incredulous upon hearing that she had led dozens of male military police officers through a three-hour firefight during the 1989 invasion of Panama.
Instead of being lauded for her heroism, she said, higher-ranking officers accused her of embellishing accounts of what happened. Congress debated fiercely over whether she and other women had any business being on the battlefield.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful that our nation’s military is taking steps to help women break the glass ceiling,” said Bray, of Clemmons, N.C.
“I hope the women who attempt to take on these challenges in the military don’t do it because now it’s OK for them to do it,” she said. “I hope they do it because they really want to make a go of being a man’s partner in going to war.”
Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y.; Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Texas; Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C.; Dan Elliott in Denver, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; contributed to this report.
AP photo Army Lt. Col. Tamatha Patterson, of Huntingdon, Tenn., waits for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to hand her the memorandum he has just signed ending the 1994 ban on women serving in combat on Thursday during a news conference at the Pentagon.×