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Girls looking at military careers want combat posts open

Sgt. David Burgess, a Marine Corps recruiter, takes part in a JROTC inspection on Nov. 15, 2012.

Sarah Trujillo grew up hearing her dad’s stories of the Marine Corps and dreamed of a military career of her own.

But some posts were off limits to women, a barrier she thought was unfair.

Her father told her things could change by the time she was old enough to serve. She hoped he was right.

Late last month, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta lifted the military’s ban on women serving in combat, opening as many as 230,000 front-line positions.

Some jobs may be open this year. Others may take longer. Any exceptions must be narrowly tailored and based on an analysis of data, defense officials said.

The transition should be complete by 2016.

“I was so excited. I was jumping up and down,” said Sarah, who at 14 still has at least four years before she can sign up.

But the Oxnard High School freshman who compares her dad’s dog tags to “a beacon of amazingness” said she knows she wants a military career.

“This is really what I want to do,” Sarah said, before falling back into drills in her Junior ROTC class. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.”

Sarah and her classmates represent a generation of girls for whom military careers will carry far fewer restrictions.

They grew up with the country at war, as troops fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When asked recently, they overwhelmingly supported lifting the ban on women in combat.

“We’re passing the torch to a new generation,” said Maj. Dale Weaver, an Air Force veteran who leads the high school program.

“They are the voice of the future that says, ‘Let everyone have an equal opportunity.’ ”

‘Little bit more equal’

Women make up 14 percent, or 202,400, of the U.S. military’s 1.4 million active personnel.

The Department of Defense says hundreds of thousands of women were deployed to recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 800 women have been wounded in the two wars and more than 130 have died, according to a congressional report.

Lifting the restrictions likely won’t dramatically change the type of women joining the military, said Stacie Furia, a research sociologist at the Palm Center, a research institute at UCLA.

The move, however, will change women’s experience in the military. Women will get an opportunity to gain experience to grow their military careers in ways they haven’t had before, Furia said.

As more women move into new roles and do so successfully, it also will help people break down stereotypes. As that happens, more women may become interested in military careers, she said.

“Now, it’s more open for everybody to do the job they want to do. And it gives women more jobs in the military,” said Scarlet Schmitz, 17, a senior at Oxnard High who has participated in Junior ROTC for the past four years.

She already planned on a military career, wanting to become a therapist or psychiatrist, most likely in the Navy.

“I don’t want to go into a combat position, but I’m glad women are now considered a little bit more equal to be able to if they want to,” she said.

“I know some women who would be good in that role — really, really good,” she said. “They would enjoy it, and they want to go in.”

Reserving judgment

Weaver agrees the ban should be lifted but thinks the shift will bring challenges.

Calling himself a traditionalist, he thinks he might have been overprotective of females in his unit if the change had come while he was serving. “I probably would have struggled with that at first,” he said.

But once he saw the woman next to him was just as capable, things would change. Like any stereotype, he said, at some point you wonder how you ever thought there would be a problem.

Master Sgt. Stephen Emmons, who served in the Air Force for more than two decades and now teaches in the Junior ROTC program, doesn’t have a strong opinion either way. He said he will reserve judgment until he sees whether the move helps the military in its mission.

“I just hope changes are made for the right reason,” Emmons said. “The change should be made because it makes us a better fighting force. That really should be the only reason.”

The Pentagon says it will not lower fitness standards for women but is reviewing requirements to see if they match the demands of various jobs.

Lucy Alcantara, 15, a first sergeant in the Junior ROTC program, said the standards should reflect what’s needed for the job, whether it’s a man or woman.

She has wanted to be a flight nurse in the Air Force since the seventh grade. It’s a post that already is open to women, but she still feels strongly about the ban being lifted, saying it gives her more options.

If a man or woman successfully trains to meet those standards, they should earn respect from colleagues, she said. “If you’re willing to do the work, that’s the person I would want next to me in combat.”

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