Spc. Heidi Olson suddenly finds herself contemplating a career in Army Special Forces.
Her horizons opened Thursday when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon would lift its ban on women serving in front-line combat positions, meaning she might have a shot at the kind of tough assignments she coveted when she enlisted.
“I joined the military to make history, and this is making history,” said Olson, a 24-year-old medic who served in Afghanistan last year with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
She’s among many Tacoma-area soldiers this week who are trying to figure out how that historic move toward gender equality will unfold for their careers and for the service as a whole.
The Army has until 2016 to integrate women in combat units, and some positions could remain closed to female soldiers. All totaled, more than 237,000 combat positions across the military that had barred female applicants are under review and likely to open.
Panetta at a news conference stressed male and female soldiers alike served with honor on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgent fighters do not recognize front lines. More than 280,000 women deployed to the wars, and 152 of them died there.
“They serve, they’re wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality,” Panetta said.
Women veterans this week echoed his remarks.
“It’s not like this hasn’t been going on. We are there,” said Maj. Sheila Medeiros, an information operations officer in Lewis-McChord’s I Corps.
Last year, she supervised more than 200 female engagement teams in Afghanistan. They were small groups of American women who’d join infantry patrols to gather information from Afghan females.
Some of the teams Medeiros managed came under fire during those missions. Olson was on one of those teams, and she came home with a Purple Heart after a May bombing that wounded her face and left side.
Medeiros advocated for a repeal of restrictions on women in combat units in a November 2011 essay she co-wrote for Small Wars Journal. In it, she said the policy inhibited commanders from using all of their trained soldiers for assignments in the war zone.
“The existing combat exclusion policies are outdated and limit not only women, but also the ability to maintain an agile and responsive force; it’s time for change,” she wrote.
She pointed to the October 2011 death of Lt. Ashley White, a cultural support specialist killed on a mission in Afghanistan with two Army Rangers from Lewis-McChord. White did her duty with honor, even though under Pentagon policy, she should not have been there.
“White’s death should serve as a catalyst for serious debate about the role of women in the military more generally,” Medeiros wrote with co-author Traci Swanson of the National Defense University.
Medeiros on Thursday called herself an outdoorsy person who would have applied to the Army’s Ranger Academy at an earlier point in her career. She says she’ll be “on the front line cheering” for any women soldiers who earn an opportunity to test themselves in that elite school.
Medeiros insisted that the Army should not create two sets of physical standards for male and female candidates for combat positions. She said women must meet the same rigorous standards.
Likewise, Staff Sgt. Jennifer Zumwalt, 25, wants the Army to be careful about admitting women to intense physical combat assignments. Now assigned to I Corps headquarters, she served at small combat outposts in Afghanistan with the 1st Infantry Division in 2008-09.
She pushed herself to keep up with infantrymen and cavalry scouts she supported on an intelligence team.
“Maybe I was able walk as far as them. Maybe I could meet them in (physical training) tests,” she said. “But would I say I was qualified to be a cav scout or an infantryman?”
Zumwalt said she would have volunteered to serve in a combat assignment before her deployment because she wanted to prove herself.
Now she’s not so sure.
“The females that go out for those jobs have to be the best of the best,” she said.
Olson proved her mettle on a May mission with a Lewis-McChord infantry platoon in southern Afghanistan. Their patrol hit two mines that day. The first one hurt an interpreter; the second wounded her and delivered more serious wounds to two of her male platoonmates.
They treated the men first, and Olson received a combat medic badge for caring for fellow soldiers under fire.
Technically, she was a “health support specialist.” But the title “combat medic” has a certain ring to it that Olson prefers.
She’s talking about the Special Forces with her fiancé, and looking forward to taking advantage of Panetta’s announcement.
“It makes it official,” she said. “We don’t have to go through the backdoor trying to get a combat tour.”Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com