Sgt. Diana Garcia attends a briefing before going on a mission with members… (Alexandra Zavis / Los Angeles…)
FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan — They fly troops into combat, drive convoys down mine-riddled roads and take part in foot patrols in the heartland of the Taliban-led insurgency.
For American women serving at military bases across Afghanistan, there was nothing extraordinary about the recent Pentagon decision to lift the official ban on women in direct combat roles.
"We're already here," said Army Capt. Kelly Hasselman, 28, of Broken Arrow, Okla., who commands a company of female soldiers that deployed with infantry in the southern province of Kandahar to build relations with rural Afghan women. "It's just not officially been in the books."
U.S. commanders say that military policy was out of step with the reality of two wars with virtually no front lines. Women, who make up about 15% of the active-duty military, have faced gunfire, bomb blasts and shelling while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan — in some cases without leaving their bases.
Two have been awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest medal for gallantry in combat. More than 150 have lost their lives.
Long before Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced that he was lifting a 1994 rule that prevented women from being assigned to units below brigade level whose primary function is direct ground combat, female troops were serving alongside such units at outposts in some of the most heavily contested regions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stretched by more than a decade of war, the Army and Marine Corps for years sidestepped official policy by "attaching," rather than assigning, women to infantry and special operations units because their skills were needed.
When soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, deployed in December to this dusty base in Zhari, the Kandahar district where the Taliban was born, they brought with them an eight-member "female engagement team" drawn from Hasselman's company. Women also serve in the battalion as medics, in the logistics and personnel sections and in the motor pool.
"Gender, height, weight, religion, sexual preference, race — I don't care," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Thomas Anderson. "It all comes down to your ability to do what the Army asks you to do."
So far, the area has remained relatively calm. But when temperatures warm up and another fighting season begins, Anderson expects that his female soldiers will be involved in firefights.
"They are no less capable than I am to react to and return fire," Anderson said. "Are my infantrymen better? Yes. That's not due to a lack of ability. It is a lack of repetition."
The battalion leadership says there have been few problems integrating women into the ranks. Rather, the change has been tougher for their Afghan security force partners to accept. The American women have grown accustomed to stares — and they aren't allowed on the Afghan side of the compound without a security escort, a precaution also imposed on male soldiers because of the threat of insider attacks.
Pfc. Rosie Darby said she was told by her recruiter that women could not serve as frontline combat medics. She made sure to email him when she got her current job: a platoon medic at one of the battalion's combat outposts. (Her official designation is healthcare specialist.)
"That first formation was a bit of a shell shock," she said, smiling. "Everyone was looking and asking: 'Is she in our formation? Is she a girl?' "
The petite 20-year-old from Pavilion, N.Y., soon earned their respect. Members of her platoon said she goes out with them almost every day, climbing over rows of grapevines with a pack of medical supplies on her back to avoid roads that may be seeded with bombs. "She outperforms half of us," said Sgt. Andrew Bohman, 27, of Cincinnati.
Coarse language doesn't faze her. "She's like one of the guys," said Pfc. Evan Sharp, 20, of Manteca, Calif.
But many in the unit are skeptical about opening other jobs to women, particularly in the infantry, where soldiers sometimes carry as much as 100 pounds of gear on foot patrols that can last all day. "There's a lot of men that struggle with that," said Sgt. 1st Class Ron Costa, 42, of Billerica, Mass.
Darby herself called it a "terrible idea." Besides the physical demands, she worries about how soldiers will react if a woman serving with them is injured. She said the men in her platoon treat her like a little sister and would want to take care of her, even if their job demands that they carry on the fight.
1st Lt. Glen Melin, the platoon commander, said his main concern is upholding Army fitness standards. "This isn't … like a frat club, to make it difficult to get into," said Melin, 25, of Corpus Christi, Texas. "It's to prepare you for the worst possible scenario."