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Female JBLM Soldiers discuss combat for all

Sgt. Jacqueline Fennell From left, Staff Sgt. Brian Hall, 1st Sgt. Marcia McGee, Spc. Vanessa Davila, Spc. Heidi Olson and Maj. Sheila Medeiros answer questions from the press Jan. 24 after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced rescinding U.S. polic

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After receiving a combat medical badge and a purple heart, Spc. Heidi Olson, a health care specialist assigned to the 296th Brigade Support Battalion, told reporters, "I've earned the right to be referred to as a combat medic," a job title formerly held by only males in the same occupational specialty.

Olson was one of five Joint Base Lewis-McChord Soldiers who addressed gender policy concerns with local media during an interview following the Department of Defense announcement Jan. 24 rescinding most prohibitions against women in combat.

"The infantry team I was on called me their honorary infantry member, and it was a chance to prove that women are able to do this as well," said Olson about the injuries she suffered from an improvised explosive device while assigned to a female engagement team May 8, 2012 in Afghanistan.

Combat-related jobs are opening to women like Olson as a result of the policy change announced Jan. 24 by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey. Panetta said the decision came a year after examining ways to remove career barriers to ensure "every citizen who can meet the qualifications should have that opportunity."

The memo, signed by Panetta and Dempsey, rescinds the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, a DOD policy prohibiting assigning women to ground combat units.

The five JBLM Soldiers shared their feelings about this turning point in history for women serving the country.

The risk and the exposure to combat are equal for men and women in an asymmetrical war, where the "frontlines" are everywhere you go, said Maj. Sheila Medeiros, an information officer assigned to I Corps Headquarters, who shared her experience of managing 219 female engagement teams while deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan last year.

The FETs were established to facilitate interaction with indiginous women whose cultural norms prevent them from speaking or talking to men, she said. The teams work alongside infantry Soldiers. "They are essential to unit cohesion and mission accomplishment," Medeiros said.

Medeiros heard a new commitment from the highest level of DOD to recognize that men and women perform the same missions.

"They're fighting and dying together and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality," said Panetta during the Jan. 24 press conference.

Media members raised concerns about standards differing for men and women.

Staff Sergeant Brian Hall, an engineer who deployed last year with women, said, "It's just like any other Soldier that I would be in charge of, if you can show up to a selection process and pass it, then you should be able to serve in that capacity."

Hall, now assigned to the I Corps Honor Guard, said he has never encountered a situation that forced him to make a choice between protecting a male or a female while deployed.

Consensus among the five was that male-female distinctions don't matter on the battlefield.

Olson said that applied to the medical treatment she received when she suffered burns from shrapnel after being hit by the IED last year.

"It did not matter that I was not treated first, what did matter is that we had a double amputee that needed to be taken care of first because he was more severely wounded," Olson said. "We are trained to treat the most severe casualty first and that's what happened and I was OK with that."

Fairness and equality formed the common theme among the JBLM panel members.

"It goes back to not changing the standard," said 1st Sgt. Marcia McGee, I Corps Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion. "The standard remains the same and if a female chooses to do Ranger school or infantry, then that is their choice."

Since 2012, modifications opened more than 14,000 new positions to women, Panetta said. The goal of DOD reassessments is to open 237,000 more positions to women in the future.

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