As part of an historic announcement opening combat roles to women in the U.S. military, the Minnesota National Guard on Thursday said it would be part of a pilot program to integrate female soldiers into previously all-male combat infantry units.

The Guard's First Brigade, 34th Infantry Division Red Bulls will be one of nine Guard brigades nationwide to immediately assign women to positions at headquarters combat units, where jobs previously were restricted to men. Those jobs could include such things as human resources, intelligence and intelligence analysis, mechanics and medics. Female soldiers already hold those positions in other units but had been restricted from those jobs in all-male units such as infantry and armor.

"It's not so much doing something that they couldn't do before, it's being able to do that in units that they never could have before," said Lt. Col. Matt Vatter, director of personnel for the Guard and commander of the 34th division headquarters and headquarters battalion.

The Guard expects between 30 and 40 female applicants for combat position from service members.

The move comes as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted restrictions on women serving in direct combat roles. The Army, by far the largest fighting force, currently excludes women from nearly 25 percent of active-duty roles. Officials assure that physical standards and other restrictions will not be reduced to accommodate the new policy, but that it will increase military readiness. They said it also acknowledges the role women already play in today's military after more than a decade at war.

"It gives a greater opportunity of our military to select out of a greater pool of applicants," Vatter said. "I'm sure we have a significant number of females that would love to be able to take on the challenge of some of the roles that have been kept from them historically. This gives us more folks to take a look at."

More than 16 percent of the state Guard are women, including 1,699 in the Army and 486 in the Air Force. Six female soldiers have been presented the Combat Action Badge or Combat Medical Badge for their actions in combat zones, and four female Minnesota Guard soldiers have been presented Purple Hearts.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434