The ban on women serving in combat positions was the last barrier to equality in the United States military, and now there's no longer a separation between male and female soldiers.
"Female service members have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and to die to defend their fellow Americans," announced U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in a news conference.
"How long has the military been around, and they're just now getting it? It's better late than never, as they say. I see it as a positive," said Dave Stone, who was visiting Fort Benning from California.
Lynne Bennett was one of the first female servicemembers to board an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf War. She said she supports the change, but wouldn't be interested in joining a combat unit herself.
"It's very exciting, it's a new role for women, but at the same time, it's very challenging to see how they'll handle themselves in that situation," Bennett said.
"I feel like the military has changed to make women feel more empowered, and to help them do what they feel like they want to do. Therefore, if they want to be in combat, more power to them," said Bennett.
For as many people who support the new policy, the decision has its share of detractors.
Sgt. Maj. Pete Bacerra is a retired Army Ranger who said he believes the majority of active duty personnel are against the decision.
"As far as the armed forces are concerned, he's double-crossed us, throwing women in here, telling us they're combat ready," said Bacerra, "They would not be physically capable of doing what the infantry soldier is supposed to do. Everyone has been taught in an Amercian life to look after the ladies. Well from now on, they'll be concentrating on this lady who's on their right or left. You know, the packs are heavy, we have four or five hundred meters to run. Can she make it? We doubt it."
The defense secretary's announcement may have complicated the effect on the country's selective service program. If the draft becomes reinstated, women may join the pool of candidates who can be pressed into service.
So far the government has not announced its intentions on the subject, but if a change occurs, it would need to happen at the Supreme Court level. The country hasn't drafted soldiers in forty years, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.
"It's not fair for them just to have the chance to be in combat if they want to and not be in selective service just like the men do. So yeah, if they want equal rights, they're going to have to have it all the way," said Bennett.
"I really wouldn't like to have my daughter, should she be at that age, or my granddaughter, to sign up for the draft," said Carolyn Stone, who was visiting Fort Benning from Florida.
Women currently make up 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. Women have been serving in non-combat roles for decades, but until now, they have been kept away from jobs that directly engage the enemy on the ground.
The changes will not occur overnight and it remains to be seen how many women will be interested in taking advantage of the new opportunity. According to the Associated Press, the Marine Corps opened their tough infantry course to female volunteers last year and only received two takers.
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