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US military opens door to women in ground combat
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Jan 24, 2013


About time, says female Purple Heart pilot
Los Angeles (AFP) Jan 24, 2013 - Major Mary Hegar's 12-year-old daughter Yellow wants to be a US Marine -- and the former helicopter pilot, who won a Purple Heart after being shot down over Afghanistan, couldn't be happier.

Indeed, the 36-year-old could even return to a war zone herself, after Thursday's announcement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that ended a ban on US women serving in ground combat.

Now living back in Austin, Texas, and in the process of leaving the full-time military after being injured in the crash in 2009, she admits to missing the action of the battlefield "terribly."

"I'm an adrenaline junkie. I drive sport bikes and go skydiving and stuff like that. And it's killing me that my squadron is over there right now without me," she told AFP.

Of those who argue that women can't "hack it" in frontline combat, she says bluntly: "I want to know what they say to me -- it's like arguing that the world is flat."

Hegar's aircraft was shot down while rescuing three injured soldiers, and she had to engage in combat, returning fire and sustaining shrapnel wounds. She was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.

Her injuries meant she had to stop flying, and a ground combat role was not an option, so she decided to quit. "I would love to have transitioned into a ground combat role but those positions weren't available," she said.

The mother-of-three described her children's pride when she went to pick up the coveted military award at a ceremony in California with her husband Brandon, a civilian.

Yellow, their eldest, "was just beaming. I think that's why she says she wants to be in the military now, she just couldn't believe it," said Hegar, one of four servicewomen who filed a lawsuit last year seeking an end to the ban.

"She came to me the other day almost in tears, and said.. somebody, an authority figure, had told her 'That's a boy's job, you can't do that'," she told AFP.

Her reply to her daughter: "Hey, why don't you go back to that person and tell them what your mum did?"

Ushering in a new era for the US military, Panetta said the ground-breaking decision reflected the changed realities of the battlefield, as women soldiers are already fighting in conflicts that lack clear frontlines.

President Barack Obama hailed the move as "historic" and "another step toward fulfilling our nation's founding ideals of fairness and equality."

Hegar, a plain-talking veteran of three tours in Afghanistan, said she and other campaigners were surprised by the speed with which the Pentagon moved, but says the legal battle is not necessarily over.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about what this is going to mean," she said, cautioning that the lawsuit filed in her name last November, helped by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), will not be dropped immediately.

"Until we see something definitive, in writing, that satisfies the stipulations of the lawsuit, we're going to proceed," she said.

From a personal standpoint, she is still considering whether to reverse her decision and rejoin the military.

"I expected this lawsuit to take years," she said.

"So I haven't really dealt with that question, as to whether or not it's too late for me to go back in."

Hegar's husband and children had always supported her military career, even though it meant not seeing her as much, she said -- but that was the same for families when men were away on the battlefield.

She recalled how, after her first tour in Afghanistan, she asked to stay on for a second. "I volunteered to facilitate someone whose wife was having a baby and he wanted to be there for that.

"Family issues are a fact of life, we cover each other. It's not about gender, it's about getting each other's back, and being part of the military family."

Ushering in a new era for the US military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday lifted a ban on women serving in ground combat, saying female troops had proven themselves in a decade of war.

The ground-breaking decision reflected the changed realities of the battlefield, Panetta said, with women soldiers having already fought in conflicts that lack clear frontlines.

"Female service members have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans," the Pentagon chief told a news conference.

"Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance," he said before signing a document ending the ban.

President Barack Obama, whose inauguration address on Monday called for opening doors to all Americans, hailed the move as "historic" and "another step toward fulfilling our nation's founding ideals of fairness and equality."

The move highlighted evolving social attitudes and marked yet another sweeping change for the military under Obama, who led a drive to end a prohibition on openly gay troops.

Although some Republican lawmakers oppose the idea, it likely will face little concerted opposition, as Americans have become accustomed to seeing women in uniform and at war.

Panetta unveiled the decision after a months-long review by chiefs of all the armed services who unanimously endorsed a gradual change that would be phased in over the next three years.

Under the decision, the armed services will have until January 2016 to carry out the new policy. Military departments would have to submit detailed plans on implementing the order by May 15, 2013, Panetta said.

The change will apply mainly to the Army and the Marine Corps, as the Air Force and Navy already have lifted most prohibitions on women in combat, allowing them to fly fighter jets and fire weapons on ships.

In 2010, the Navy opted to allow women to serve on submarines.

Commanders began taking a second look at the ban in 2010, a reflection of the changing conditions on the battlefield, as women served on the blurry and ever-shifting frontlines in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same news conference the move was part of a long-term trend in the military and that he had witnessed changes during his time in Iraq.

He recalled being taken aback when he arrived as a division commander and learned the turret gunner in his armored vehicle was named "Amanda."

"And it's from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it."

Gender-neutral criteria for combat jobs will be drafted without watering down tough standards for physical strength or other skills, he said.

"The burden used to be that we would say, 'why should a woman serve in a particular specialty?' Now it's, 'why shouldn't a woman serve in a particular specialty?'" Dempsey said.

The four-star general said he and other service chiefs expected women would make it into the elite ranks of special operations forces: "I think we all believe that there will be women who can meet those standards."

A defense official said the change would be incremental, to allow each service to ensure a smooth transition.

"With a change of this magnitude, it may take some time," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

Women make up about 14.5 percent of the active duty US military, or about 204,000 service members. And 152 female troops have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Advocates for changing the policy have argued that denying female troops a chance at ground combat jobs effectively blocks them from attaining top commander posts.

Some officers opposed to the change say infantry units require serious upper body strength and warned that difficult physical tests might be relaxed for female recruits.

Right-leaning commentators also have questioned whether mothers in uniform should be sent into combat, even if they volunteer.

The Marine Corps recently opened up infantry officer training to women, but the two females who volunteered failed to pass the grueling test, with one suffering an injury.

The policy change will likely define the brief tenure of Panetta, who took over as Pentagon chief in mid-2011 after a stint as director of the CIA, where he presided over the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

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