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Women in combat plan opens opportunities

Many applaud decision, but some worry about women on the front lines of combat.

While in Iraq, the perpetual barrage of mortars didn’t take Stephanie Cameron’s sex into account.

“The enemy doesn’t see a gender,” the Springfield resident and Army reservist said. “They just see the uniform.”

The announcement Thursday by the Pentagon officially rescinded the ban on women — 152 of whom already have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — from participating in direct ground combat. It seemed inevitable to some local service members like Cameron in an era of warfare that doesn’t have traditional boundaries.

“It was bound to happen,” said Cameron, a sergeant and a veteran of two tours in Iraq. “Whether I was going to see it in my lifetime is a whole other story.”

“We can stand up and handle any fight and any battle,” she added.

Thursday’s announcement will allow women to fully take the fight to the enemy by Jan. 1, 2016.

The decision came on the heels of a recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to fully integrate women into occupational fields to the maximum extent possible. Women previously were barred from serving in artillery, armor, infantry and other combat units by a 1994 rule.

“It’s a landmark victory,” said Kathy Platoni, an Army Reserve colonel and Centerville psychologist who has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “It’s about time and in many ways was long overdue because there is no rear echelon. Everybody is on the front-line in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Women make up about 15 percent of the U.S. military’s 1.4 million active personnel, but not everyone is ready to see them in combat, including some local veterans.

Sitting Thursday afternoon in the American Legion Post 218 bar in Middletown, World War II veteran Jay Holman said he “never dreamed” he’d live to see a time when women would be allowed in combat.

Acknowledging the generational differences, the 86-year-old feared the worst.

“They would create distractions and probably get both them and the men killed,” he said.

Women have served as gunners, medics, truck drivers and combat helicopter pilots in the Army, Platoni noted.

“We’ve been in those combat roles for a very long time so this kind of validates what we’ve been doing all along,” she said.

Lifting the ban will remove obstructions women face to the highest ranks of the military, the colonel added.

“I’ve been fortunate to have served with an awful lot of gutsy women who will not balk at anything thrown their way,” she said.

Lt. Col. Claudia Mason, senior army instructor for the Army Jr. ROTC at Thurgood Marshall High School in Dayton, agreed that those who have attained the highest ranks in the military typically come from the combat branches, so lifting the ban creates opportunity for women to advance their military careers.

“It is a commentary on how things are changing and how the generations are more accepting of diversity,” Mason said.

Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, commander of Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the only four-star female general currently in the U.S. military, said Thursday the policy change provides an even greater pool of airmen to select from to fill jobs.

Ninety-nine percent of all Air Force positions are open to women, and the change will open the remaining 1 percent — jobs such as special operations and pararescue.

“In order to remain the world’s premier Air Force, it’s important that we continue to embrace diversity by attracting, recruiting, developing, mentoring and retaining the best possible talent — male and female,” Wolfenbarger said in a statement.

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7670 in Overpeck near Hamilton, Karan Engelkamp, who served in the Air Force from 1980 to 1986, said, “When you sign up, you sign up for the whole package.”

At Springfield High School, a third of the 163 cadets in the school’s Marine Corps JROTC program are women.

Cadets like senior Tiffany Johnson were energized Thursday by the news.

“It’s living up to what’s in the Constitution, that all men are created equal,” Johnson said. “If we want to fight, let us go fight.”

Johnson has no reservations about women doing the job.

“There are women out there that are colder, harder than a man,” she said.

As a next-generation Marine, Springfield High School JROTC senior Carlos Morris has no qualms about one day fighting alongside a woman.

“If they have the ability to do it,” he said, “then let them do it.”

Staff writers Barrie Barber, Rick McCrabb, Richard Jones and Kelli Wynn contributed to this report.

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