CHARKUSA, Afghanistan - The staff sergeant sat behind the M240B machine gun, trained the sight on target and opened fire, spraying bullets at the insurgents. To them, it didn't matter that the soldier firing the weapon was a woman. And, for the most part, she says, her gender hasn't mattered to the troops she's served with, either. She has experience now in combat, but some roles are still closed to her and the tens of thousands of other women in uniform - notably, positions as commandos such as Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets. Those rules are changing. On Tuesday, the individual services and Tampa-based U.S. Special Operations Command laid out plans for integrating women into previously closed jobs by 2016.
The move comes five months after then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the end of a 1994 policy excluding women from combat. The staff sergeant - names of commandos in the field and those supporting them are kept secret by the military - talked recently about her experiences behind the machine gun. Serving alongside men was not a top concern at the moment. What was? "Moving my weapon and finding the best field of fire. "Up until this deployment," she said, "I've always felt like I was treated the same as any of the guys." It hasn't always been that way. "The first team I supported this trip didn't really treat me the same, and even tried to hold me back from doing my job," she said. That changed when she moved south in Afghanistan, "and it seemed like being a female didn't matter." The staff sergeant, a 26-year-old from Tennessee, is one of two women recently working with the A-Team of the Florida-based 7th Special Forces group. She is part of an Army brigade assigned to assist Special Forces units and pulls a wide variety of duties, such as commanding one of the team's lumbering armored vehicles. The other woman, also a staff sergeant, is Kaily Brown, 27, of Salt Lake City. The military does identify Brown publicly because she serves in a public affairs role. During recent trips with the A-Team to local villages, dressed in full battle gear, both women were nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the unit. Even toting a camera, Brown pulled perimeter security duty at times, her M4 rifle at the ready in case of trouble. So did the sergeant from Tennessee. The two have plenty of company. As of Feb. 29, more than 16,000 women were serving overseas, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report titled "Women in Combat: Issues for Congress." In Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 800 women have been wounded and 130 killed, according to the study. That includes Brittany Gordon, a 24-year-old Army specialist from St. Petersburg killed last year while on an intelligence-gathering mission not far from where Brown and the other staff sergeant were stationed. Earlier this year, Panetta rescinded prohibitions against women in combat, but for these two, and for all women serving here, the rules are blurred by a place where there are no front lines and everyone is in danger. Brown has been in the Army for nearly 10 years, the sergeant from Tennessee for nearly seven. "Most of the time I feel that I'm treated the same," the Tennessee woman says via email. "I have the same responsibilities and am expected to keep up and know my job. Only once in the six years of my experience have I felt that I was treated differently." Brown, who documents the activities of special operations forces, says she too has been accepted as an equal. "When I get out with the teams, they don't see me as a girl," Brown says. "I've been a gunner on a truck. A truck commander. I am there to help the team as much as I can. It doesn't matter if I have different parts." It certainly didn't matter two years ago along the Helmand River, when she was on a patrol with a special operations team and insurgents opened fire with machine guns. "We had to run about 700 yards across an open field," Brown says. She and her team chief eventually made it to the safety of a wall at a village compound. "It was a crazy situation," Brown says. "At points I was pulling security" as wounded troops were taken away to safety. Brown says she received kudos for her effort. "When the team chief got back, he said, 'You kept a lot of guys from complaining. You carry more weight than they do. They see you doing the same things.' That for me was the ultimate compliment." The issue of sexual assault in the military is gaining attention in Congress but neither staff sergeant has experienced any problems. Brown, in fact, has shared shower and bathroom facilities with male troops and says that the special operations forces she travels with have been respectful. "The teams I have been with are probably the best of the best," she says. "There is nothing sexual about it. We are there to do the job properly." The younger staff sergeant says rumors have been her biggest issue as a woman in combat situations. "I wouldn't say that I've exactly been harassed, but it's amazing some of the rumors that people (who have never met me) come up with and how easy spouses overreact when they find out that there is a female on the same base/site," she writes in an email. Among other roles, the Army, Navy and Marines will be opening to women some formerly closed conventional forces positions in infantry and armor and on surface ships and submarines. The Air Force's 5,000 now-closed slots are all special operations positions, like special tactics and combat rescue officers. Socom is looking at how to integrate women into the nearly 15,000 jobs as SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant Craft crews, Green Berets, Rangers, Marine and Air Force commandos. The goal for the services is to create gender-neutral standards while maintaining readiness. Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, representing Socom at a Tuesday afternoon news conference at the Pentagon, said he was more concerned about the social aspects than he is about the physical issues. Which is why Socom, through its Center for Special Operations Studies and Research at its Joint Special Operations University in Tampa, will help analyze the social and cultural impacts of integrating women into "small, elite teams that operate in remote, austere areas." Count Army Staff Sgt. Brown among those who think the standards should be the same regardless of gender. "The elite units should remain elite," Brown says. "They should not lower the standards for women." email@example.com (813) 259-7629 Twitter: @haltman