Valley Navy veteran excited for women in combat roles

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- Women now have the right to fight for our country on the front lines. 

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will make it official Thursday, clearing the way for women to serve in combat.  The announcement will be a huge shattering of the glass ceiling for female service members in all branches of the military.

A proud veteran of the U.S. Navy, Katherine Harding never saw combat but wanted to.

“I really wanted to go into the military and be a sniper in the SEAL teams,” said Harding, a retired Navy veteran who now serves a civilian role in the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services.

But when the Valley native was serving from 1994 to ’96, being a female sniper was out of the question.

“You learn all those trainings but you never get to utilize it,” said Harding.  “It discouraged me because all you would look forward to is other careers that would be administrative in nature.”

Throughout U.S. military history women have never been allowed in direct combat roles. This policy shift opens up jobs and commands never before available to women. The new positions aren’t just infantry, but jobs like tank commander and artillery.

Some have long argued that women lack the physicality of men, making them impractical or even hazardous on the front lines.  Even with the policy change, however, some special-operations groups and infantry will be able to ask for exemptions to allowing women, and female combat performance will be scrutinized.

That’s fine according to U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who lost both legs and partial use of her right arm when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004.  Duckworth was a Black Hawk helicopter pilot and one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq.

“Let's just open it up, make it based on performance," Duckworth said. "If the women can't meet the standards then they don't get to graduate from the program.  But if they can meet the standards then we gain another soldier who is willing to serve this nation and willing to lay their lives down in a combat roll and that's good for our military."

Harding agrees with Duckworth’s sentiments and even has a few ideas for the next generation of the military's la femme fatale.

“I always dreamed if they had a Special Forces unit that was elite, like the snipers [with] all females going in… the enemy won't expect it,” she said.

Arizona Sen. John McCain released a statement supporting Panetta’s decision but offering cautionary advice.

In whole, McCain's statement read:

“I respect and support Secretary Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat. The fact is that American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes them a deep debt of gratitude. As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world – particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units.”

Military experts said it will take time to integrate the different branches of service with some jobs open to women by the end of the year.  Others, like Special Forces, will have a 2016 timetable.

The Pentagon has already started a slow push toward allowing women greater occupational latitude.  The Navy put its first female officers on submarines in the past year and some female ground troops have been “attached” to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

According to CNN, more than 800 women were wounded in those wars and at least 130 have died.