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In an undated handout photo, Lindsey Melki, a Black Hawk pilot in Iraq who left the Army after she lost out on the chance to advance to an elite Special Operations helicopter combat unit because it was off limits to her as a woman. For female officers, the lifted combat ban offers not just the opportunity to fight, but a chance to advance in a career in which combat experience remains essential. (Handout via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH STORY SLUGGED WOMEN COMBAT REACT BY ELISABETH BUMILLER AND JAMES DAO. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED.

Handout, New York Times

Zoe Bedell, a Marine reserve captain, at her office in New York, Jan. 25, 2013. For female officers, the lifted combat ban offers not just the opportunity to fight, but a chance to advance in a career in which combat experience remains essential.

Hiroko Masuike, New York Times

Some female officers are left with 'what if?'

  • Article by: ELISABETH BUMILLER and JAMES DAO
  • New York Times
  • January 26, 2013 - 10:20 PM

 

One was a Black Hawk pilot in Iraq who left the Army after she lost out on the chance to advance to an elite special operations helicopter combat unit because it was off-limits to her as a woman.

Another was a Marine captain who went on infantry foot patrols in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, but left active duty after she decided that her only future as a woman in the Marines was a lifetime of logistics or support units.

The third, a brigadier general who joined the Marines in a different era, made her peace with reality, stuck it out and rose to become the first woman to command Parris Island, the service's famous South Carolina training center.

For all three officers, the military's ban on women in combat was not so much a glass ceiling as a seemingly bulletproof one that limited their career advancement options even as women played an increasingly important role in defending their country.

For them, the significance of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision last week to lift the 1994 ban on women in combat was not just that it gives them the opportunity to fight but that it offers women a chance to advance in a career in which combat experience remains essential.

"Growing up in America, you don't encounter this kind of discrimination," said the Marine captain, Zoe Bedell, 27, a Princeton graduate, recalling her four years on active duty. Now in the Marine Reserve, she remains a plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Pentagon for its policies on women and no longer envisions a career in the military. "I think my ship has sailed," she said.

Although women often engaged in ground warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, the military did not count their actions as combat, and their battlefield experience went unrecognized. Many left in anger and frustration, or just disappointment at hitting a wall.

"Special operations is something I would have tried for, and if I had gotten it, I probably would have stayed around longer," said the Black Hawk pilot, Lindsey Melki, 30, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The Parris Island commander, Brig. Gen. Lori E. Reynolds, 47, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, chose to accept the strictures and rose on a path that was available to her. Although she declined to be interviewed for this article, in an interview in Afghanistan in 2010 she talked about younger military women who were chafing at the combat restrictions.

"Some of these kids, they grew up without barriers," she said. "But from my perspective, we are where we need to be." In a statement Friday, Reynolds said she now looked forward to seeing "that change is implemented the right way."

Melki began a 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2007. She spent much of her time there ferrying infantrymen on combat missions. On more than a few occasions she was a pilot for Special Forces troops -- the Army's Green Berets -- who were hunting down insurgent leaders.

When her deployment ended, Melki looked around for new assignments and found herself dreaming of joining a special operations aviation regiment, an elite Army unit known as the Night Stalkers. After all, she already had flown Special Forces on secret missions. "I thought, 'Why can't I do that?'" she said.

The answer: Because of the Pentagon's ban on women in combat, which prohibited women from serving in special-ops units like the Night Stalkers. So Melki watched as friends and peers were accepted in the Special Forces.

Melki headed to Fort Jackson, S.C., where she commanded a basic training company of new recruits. She remained there until 2011, when she left the Army.

Today Melki is a Tillman Military Scholar at the Stern School of Business at New York University, and her new dream is to work in government to help veterans and their families. But with the announcement of the end of the ban, she cannot help wistfully wondering: What if?

Bedell joined the Marines after graduating from Princeton in 2007 and two years later was in Afghanistan as a logistics officer, a job that largely confined her to a desolate base in Helmand Province. But in what became the highlight of her tour, in early 2010 Bedell spent three weeks with five other women attached to a Special Forces unit patrolling Marja, an opium poppy breadbasket that had been the site of a U.S. offensive against the Taliban a short time before.

After the end of her deployment in April 2011, she left active duty. "Ultimately, it was only ever going to be a supporting effort," she said. "In an organization whose mission was fighting, I wasn't allowed to fight." She knew that going in, she said, but it was hard to come up against the reality. It was also hard to learn that three years of Arabic in college would not help land her a Marine intelligence job she wanted because it was categorized as a combat position.

Today Bedell is a financial analyst in New York and is headed to law school in the fall.

Reynolds graduated from the Naval Academy in only the seventh class to admit women.

"I was not going to let those guys make me cry," she told the Washington Post in 2011. That seemed her motto as the 6-foot-tall college basketball player rose through the ranks.

She led a communications battalion in Fallujah, Iraq, during brutal battles there in 2004 and 2005. She chose communications as a specialty, she said in the 2010 interview, because it was close to the action but still open to women. By 2010, Reynolds was in Afghanistan as commanding officer of Camp Leatherneck in Helmand. By 2011, she had become a one-star general running Parris Island. "I am not here by mistake, because it was time to put a girl here," she said at the time. "I was the right person for the job."

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