(Kristin M. Hall ~ Associated Press)
The policy change announced earlier this year is being tested at nine brigades, including one at Fort Campbell, before going Army-wide. It opens thousands of jobs to female soldiers by loosening restrictions meant to keep them away from the battlefield. Experience on the ground in the past decade showed women were fighting and dying alongside male soldiers anyway.
Col. Val Keaveny Jr., commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team that is among units piloting the change, said that for the last decade it has been common to have women temporarily attached to the combat units and serve alongside them.
"Women have served in our Army since the Revolutionary War, and they have done phenomenal work and continue to do so today," he said. "There is great talent, and now we can have it in the headquarters of infantry, armor and cavalry."
Under the new policy, female officers and noncommissioned officers will be assigned to combat units below the brigade level. The change will open about 14,000 new jobs for women in the military, but there are still more than 250,000 jobs that remain closed to women.
The new jobs within combat battalions are in personnel, intelligence, logistics, signal corps, medical and chaplaincy. The Army is also opening jobs that were once entirely closed to women, such as mechanics for tanks and artillery and rocket launcher crew members.
The 4th Brigade draws its lineage from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose World War II heroics led to books and a TV miniseries called the "Band of Brothers." But these days, Keaveny said there are more than 350 women already serving in the brigade and they will be opening 36 new jobs to women in the battalions.
"For the last 10 years, we have been fighting alongside women. In my experience I have seen that the Band of Brothers quickly integrate their sisters and they are a family," he said.
Capt. Elizabeth Evans, a 44-year-old mother of five, is one of the first women assigned to the combat battalions. She will be serving as a battalion S1, whose job is to oversee personnel issues within the battalion, including awards, casualties, human resources and other administrative responsibilities. She said there is a lot of pride associated with serving in an infantry unit.
"I think there's a rich history in the 101st and especially the 4th Brigade Combat Team," she said. "To me that means something. It means something to be a part of not necessarily history, but to be a part of a once all-male battalion."
Evans, who has deployed to Afghanistan, noted that women have been serving in dangerous jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan for 10 years.
"With the fluidity of the battlefield and how there are no front lines, it just makes more sense to me to allow women to come into those roles, those noncombat staff roles," she said.
Keaveny said these changes will have minimum impact on where women will be located while deployed. Battalion headquarters are generally located at bases where women were already stationed and the Army has been using female engagement teams to reach out to civilians in remote areas.
"Quite honestly we don't see there's going to be any friction," he said.
Kayla Williams, author of "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army," served with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team under the 101st Airborne Division during the initial invasion into Iraq as an enlisted soldier in military intelligence.
Early in the war, she wasn't even issued plates for her ballistic vest "because females can't serve in combat," she said. She said once she was temporarily attached to an infantry battalion at Fort Campbell that had no female latrines.
As an Arabic translator, she was attached to infantry units rather than assigned, but doing the same things as her male infantry counterparts, including going on foot patrols and living in remote combat outposts.
"Women have been serving in very forward deployed roles, and women have been serving side-by-side with combat arms personnel, just not in a formalized assigned method," said Williams, who is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
She said these incremental changes could improve the professional development of both men and women in the military, but acknowledged that the military still has a long way to go to leveling the field for women.
"It is my personal opinion that the institutionalization of women as not being able to serve in combat arms has a way of subtly allowing sexism within the military," she said.
Evans said she hopes the expanded roles will encourage more women to consider a career in the Army.
"I think for females in general, it's bringing us new avenues for accomplishments, for professional growth. In my personal belief, we are a part of supporting our infantryman," she said.