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January 23. 2013 10:58PM

NH women react to end of ban on combat

Combat veteran Nancy Young of Auburn was thrilled to hear other women will get the chance to serve on the front lines in the military.

A retired master sergeant with the Air National Guard, Young served as a gunner on a truck in Iraq. She said some women may want to think thoroughly about seeking posts previously limited to men, but she is glad there is finally going to be a choice.

"I think it's great that they're going to be given the opportunity to try," Young said Wednesday. "It's been a long time coming."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday he has decided to lift the military's ban on women serving in combat, a move that could open thousands of front-line, war-fighting jobs to female service members.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said she is pleased at the news.

"I've seen firsthand servicemen and women working together in a range of dangerous operations to achieve our military objectives - and today's announcement reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country," the Republican said in a written statement. "As the Pentagon begins the review process, I'm also glad that military service leaders will provide guidance on how best to implement this policy change."

Carolyn Hodge of Goffstown enlisted in the Marines in 1978. Women going through boot camp were not able to qualify with weapons - as their male counterparts were required to do. Now a readiness NCO at the National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters in Concord, Hodge was excited to hear that women will be getting the same opportunities as men.

"I think it's going to create wonderful opportunities for some great female leadership," she said. "We've seen it come slowly a long way. I would have liked to have seen it move a little quicker."

Sen. Carl Levin, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the lifting of the ban reflects the "reality of 21st century military operations."

The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban.

The decision, expected to be formally announced later, would give the individual military services until 2016 to seek an exemption if they believe any jobs should remain closed to women, a senior defense official said. It was unclear when the change would go into effect.

"This policy change will initiate a process whereby the services will develop a plan to implement this decision, which was made by the secretary of defense upon recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," the official said.

The decision overturns a 1994 policy that prevents women from serving in small, front-line combat units.

It comes nearly a year after the Pentagon unveiled a policy that opened 14,000 new jobs to women, but continued to prohibit them from serving in infantry, armor and special operations units whose main function was to engage in front-line combat.

"If they want to become infantry, or tank duty, that's a full-time day-in, day-out training. That's all you do," Young said.

Asked last year why women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting security details and house-to-house searches were still being formally barred from combat positions, Pentagon officials said the services wanted to see how they performed in the new positions before opening up further.

About 2 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women. Some 280,000 women have been deployed to the war zones over the past decade, about 12 percent of the U.S. total.

Defense officials noted that 10 years of combat had made it clear that some of the military's gender-based restrictions were obsolete because the battlefields faced by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had no clear front lines and no obvious ways to limit exposure to the fighting.

"This policy has become irrelevant given the modern battle space with its nonlinear boundaries," the Defense Department said in a report to Congress.

More than 200,000 women serve as active-duty members of the military, including more than 37,000 officers.

New Hampshire Union Leader Staff Writer Doug Alden contributed to this report.


dalden@unionleader.com

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