"If there are women able to meet the required standard, then why not let them fight if they so desire?" said Maj. Elizabeth L. Alexander. Since 2002, she hass served in Pakistan once and Iraq three times in supply and maintenance jobs and is now with the 3rd Army in South Carolina.
More than 200,000 U.S. women have served in the wars, 12 percent of the Americans sent. Of some 6,600 Americans killed, 152 were women; 84 of them were killed by enemy action and 68 in nonhostile circumstances such as accidents, illness and suicide.
In February, the department altered rules to reflect realities of the decade, opening some new jobs and officially allowing women into many jobs they were already doing, but in units closer to the fighting. The new policy still bans women from being infantry soldiers, Special Operations commandos, and others in direct combat, but opened some 14,000 previously male-only positions, mostly in the Army, such as artillery mechanic and rocket launcher crew member. More than 230,000 positions remain closed to women, who are 15 percent of the 1.4 million in all branches.
Hundreds of female soldiers began moving into once all-male battalions, taking jobs they already had trained for, such as in personnel, intelligence, signal corps, medicine and chaplaincy. Forty-five women Marines similarly went to battalions as part of a large research effort to gauge how women might do.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been studying reports from the services to update him on progress with the newly opened positions, what's being done to pursue gender-neutral physical standards and what barriers remain and whether more positions can be opened.
Panetta could announce the next step in the coming weeks, which might mean anything from further openings to simply further study.
"Yes, there may be a small number of women who are interested," said Katy Otto, spokeswoman for the Service Women's Action Network, an equal opportunity advocacy group. "But does that mean they should be barred from entry?"
Lory Manning of Women's Research and Education Institute said female interest could be greater than expected.
"I think they'll be surprised by the number that will come forward," said the 25-year Navy veteran who retired in the 1990s. She said the Navy faced a similar question then: Did women want to go to sea?
"If you asked someone in 1985 about going to sea, she would have been thinking: 'Girls don't do that and so I don't want to do that,'" Manning said. "But when push came to shove, they did it, they loved it."
Changing the rules for a potential future draft would be a difficult proposition.
The Supreme Court has ruled that because the Selective Service Act is aimed at creating a list of men who could be drafted for combat — and women are not in combat jobs — American women aren't required to register upon turning 18 as all males are. If combat jobs open to women, Congress would have to decide what to do about that law.
Associated Press writers Julie Watson in San Diego, Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia, S.C., Rob Gillies in Toronto and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Marine jobs: http://tinyurl.com/6q8ewac
Army combat jobs: http://tinyurl.com/ah98yjj
Service Women's Action Network: http://servicewomen.org
Women's Research and Education Institute: http://www.wrei.org/MilitaryWomen.htm