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Front lines still far off for women

– The path to the front combat lines for women in the U.S. military may be long and complicated by demands from Army infantry, the Marines and the Special Operations Forces that killed Osama bin Laden.

Even as the Pentagon announced it was lifting a ban on women serving in ground-combat units, defense officials said Thursday the plan may take as long as three years to complete and will require a methodical review of the physical standards needed for each combat job and whether some should remain closed to women.

Lawmakers and women’s advocates said they will keep a watchful eye on the Defense Department in coming months as it tries to create a more gender-neutral military for the 21st century.

“We want to make sure there’s not foot-dragging going on in making this change,” said Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit late last year on behalf of four military women who sought ground-combat positions. “Our clients are evidence that women are being harmed by these policies now.”

While women have been a permanent part of the military services rather than in separate auxiliaries since a 1948 act of Congress, they have long been excluded from the infantry, artillery and other ground-combat jobs.

Yet after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan that sent more than 280,000 female troops into war zones, Pentagon leaders and women who served said gender discrimination no longer makes sense.

“Women have been bleeding, dying and serving in combat, and that needs to be recognized,” Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said Thursday.

“The other part of this is that women will now be able to move up into some of these positions and it will allow them to get promoted to the highest rank of the military,” said Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in 2004 when the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

“That’s really difficult to do if you don’t have time in a combat-arms unit under your belt.”

The recognition and the advancement may not come easily. Defense officials said they will need time to review the standards required for all combat positions to determine how best to judge qualified men and women and whether some jobs should continue to be restricted to men.

“We expect to be challenged just like any fire department or police department in any big city” in which standards for duty are contested, said Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

Even so, Cone said, “Women do not want standards changed for them. If the standard is in fact valid, they want to meet that standard.”