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Originally published January 24, 2013 at 9:17 PM | Page modified January 25, 2013 at 11:57 AM

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JBLM women react to lifting of combat ban

Women soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord welcome the chance to join combat units.

Seattle Times reporter

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD — After her college graduation, Heidi Olson decided to join the Army because she wanted to be part of history rather than teach it.

Spc. Olson, 24, sought to serve side by side with men in a war zone and “prove to the infantry guys, hey, I can do this, too.”

She found that opportunity by volunteering to serve as a “female engagement” soldier who reached out to Afghan women, a position that required her to head out time and time again on infantry patrols through treacherous territory.

Her deployment ended last May when she suffered shrapnel wounds to her face and left side in a bomb blast that severed both legs of one of the soldiers on the patrol.

With the announcement Thursday of the lifting of the ban on women in combat positions, Olson said she would welcome the chance to go to war as a formal member of an infantry unit.

“It’s official,” Olson declared. “We don’t have to do the back door way to go out to combat.”

Olson was one of several female soldiers who talked with reporters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord about the historic decision.

The three Stryker combat brigades there restrict women from serving as members of infantry platoons. The base also has an Army Ranger battalion that is off-limits to women.

Under the action announced Thursday, military services would have until 2016 to seek special exceptions for positions they want to remain closed to women.

But departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke of a new ethic of allowing any soldier to serve in any position if he or she meets the qualifications.

“I fundamentally believe that our military is more effective when success is based solely on ability and qualifications and on performance,” Panetta said at a news conference.

For Maj. Sheila Medeiros, the lifting of the ban brought back memories of her early ambitions to go through Ranger training.

“I’m an outdoor person. Pretty athletic. It’s something I have always wanted to do. But I am 10 years too old,” she said. “But I would encourage those who can meet the standard and would be on the finish line cheering for them.”

Medeiros and other women who spoke Thursday described the frustrations of restrictions on their military service. But they did not think here would be a big rush of women seeking to move into combat units once the ban is lifted.

“I know that there are some women who are itching to get into that role,” said Sgt. Jennifer Zumwalt. “I am sure that if this had happened back in 2007 or 2008, I would be one of the first to try it out. ”

But Zumwalt says she now has a different perspective. She served a long tour of duty in Afghanistan in an information-gathering role as the only woman on a combat outpost. And she felt plenty of pressure.

“At first it was quite difficult. Because they didn’t accept me to being to their liking. Because they didn't know me,” Zumwalt said. “At that point, it took everything I had in me to prove to them that I was able to surpass them in what they did themselves.”

The advent of women into combat roles also will likely change makeup of the Army leadership, since combat duty may boost chances for promotions.

But several female soldiers who spoke Thursday did not see the lifting of the combat ban as changing the environment that women may face in male-dominated units, where sexual abuse and harassment remain problems.

“In my opinion, you are going to have issues regardless,” said 1st Sgt. Marcia McGee. “But there are things in place to mitigate those (issues). I don’t see any change.”

Hal Bernton:; 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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