Female soldiers welcome opportunity on front lines
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced Thursday that he is lifting a decades old ban on women serving in combat. At the same time, he said not everyone can meet the qualifications to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to the chance.
Women are already fighting and dying in battle. Making them full combat soldiers, women say, will give them opportunities and open doors that, until now, have been mostly closed.
For 10 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, women have routinely been put in the line of fire. Officially approving female soldiers for front line duty put a smile on the face of Staff Sergeant Ashley Westfall.
"It makes you chuckle, because women do go to combat," she said.
As an Army MP, the Indiana National Guardsman escorted convoys. Westfall "manned" a .50 caliber machine gun along side male comrades as they withstood roadside bombs, rocket and ground attacks.
"We knew from the get go what our job was going to be. So when we went outside the wire, I was fully prepared for it," Westfall explained.
Captain Catalina Carrasco was an operations officer in Iraq. Although she never left the base, she says, "You hear the gun shots, the bomb shells. You are definitely in a combat zone."
Lifting the ban will open front line battle positions for almost 240,000 female soldiers. Some believed that barring women, at least officially, from combat positions put them at a disadvantage. It made it more difficult for them to receive promotions, move up the chain of command and extend their careers.
With greater risks, soldiers Eyewitness News talked with see greater opportunities. Carrasco insisted, "It opens doors. Many women wanted this to come for a long time."
"Honestly, as an NCO, (non-commissioned officer) I think of leadership opportunities for females and that makes me happy," Westfall said.
But there will be challenges. Over perhaps a period of a year, women will be phased in to front line positions. To get there, they will have to meet the same physical requirements as men.
Not all combat jobs will be open to women. Additional training, decisions and details have to be worked out. But without these changes, one veteran is quoted as saying, "We disappear into the background."
So far in Iraq and Afghanistan, 152 female soldiers have died in battle.
Panetta lifts ban
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in announcing he is lifting a ban on women serving in combat, said he believes women have become an integral part of the military's ability to succeed.
Panetta made his announcement with the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, at a Pentagon news conference.
Panetta said that not everyone can meet the qualifications to be a combat soldier. But, he said, everyone is entitled to the chance.
He said the qualifications will not be reduced, and with women playing a broader role, the military will be strengthened.
White House: Obama supports women in combat
President Barack Obama says allowing women to serve in combat marks another step toward the country's founding ideals of fairness and equality.
Obama says in a written statement he expressed strong support for the decision to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who lifted the combat ban Thursday.
Obama says he is confident the decision - coupled with the recent repeal of the ban on gays in the military - will strengthen the U.S. military.
The president says, quote, "Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger, with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love. "
Ex-POW Lynch: Rule on women in combat 'good news'
Former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch calls it good news for the U.S. military that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says women can serve in combat roles.
The West Virginia resident says women have long been integral to victories in the fight for freedom.
Lynch was 19 when she was captured after her Army unit took a wrong turn and came under attack in Iraq in 2003. She was rescued after nine days in captivity.
Lynch urges Americans to support military men and women, and to push U.S. officials to ensure they have proper training and equipment.
Panetta says allowing women to fill combat roles will strengthen the U.S. military's ability to win wars.
But military leaders must decide which, if any, jobs will still be open only to men.
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