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In Mosul, Iraq, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein 2003, Army Lt. Col. Steve Countouriotis of Petaluma and his civil affairs crew were surrounded by several Kurds who appeared interested in his Humvee.

"They started to gather around our vehicle. They were just curious," he said. "But it was a little uncomfortable because it was a large group of men."

All of a sudden, the now-retired helicopter pilot said, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"It was one of my female soldiers, about 19 years old," he said. "She said, 'Don't worry, sir, I got your six.'"

In military lingo, that means she had his back — his 6 o'clock on the clock face.

"She had her M16 and she was not going to let anything happen to her battle commander," Countouriotis said.

Incidents like that led Countouriotis to call the Pentagon's end of the ban on women in combat "long overdue."

"The women I served with ... pulled their weight, no question about it. I never had a bad experience," said Countouriotis, who served two tours of duty in the Middle East and spent 30 years in the military.

His sentiments were echoed by several retired and active military members — men and women — in Sonoma County this week after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that more than 230,000 battlefront posts, many in Army and Marine infantry units and in potentially elite commando jobs, are now open to women.

The historic change, which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

There has been longtime opposition to women in combat, primarily based on concerns of whether they have the necessary strength and stamina for certain jobs or whether their presence might hurt unit cohesion. Women's rights advocates led the call for change, arguing that female soldiers' careers were being stifled by the restrictions. Combat duty and battlefield command are key essentials to advancement in most military career paths.

Many veterans said the announcement simply makes official what has been happening on the battlefield for years.

According to a report in December by the Congressional Research Service, more than 800 women have been wounded and about 130 have been killed in the past decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the 1994 Pentagon policy, women were prohibited from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines and included command and support staff that oversaw about 3,500 troops in smaller units.

But evolving combat styles in Iraq and Afghanistan propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached, but not formally assigned, to battalions and companies in the Army and their equivalents in the other services. While a woman couldn't be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly a helicopter supporting the unit, drive a truck to deliver supplies in a combat zone or provide medical aid on the ground if troops were injured.

Sgt. 1st Class Jessamyn Sobecki-Engle of Cloverdale of the National Guard's 579th Engineer Battalion, headquartered in Santa Rosa, has served two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since she joined in 2001.

She became a machine gunner on her first tour when her predecessor was killed. "It was either put me at the gun or make me the driver," she said. "Either way, I was in danger."

In her second tour, she said, she had more combat experience than most of her soldiers.

Still, she said, it's not easy being a woman in the military, where the jobs are often extremely physically demanding and living conditions unforgiving.

"It's going to take a lot of tough females to do some of those jobs. You have to be of a different breed," Sobecki-Engle said.

Air Force Capt. Mindy Yu of Santa Rosa, now serving in the reserves, served two tours of duty in Iraq and ended her active-duty military career working in communications with NATO in Europe.

She said encountered heavy combat and daily small-arms fire during her first tour in Iraq.

Like Sobecki-Engle, Yu sees the change as mostly making official what has been happening informally for years.

"There are already women assigned to combat support jobs that have seen just as much combat as the others," she said. "This will just give people the opportunity to put that on their record."

Female soldiers and airmen went out with infantry units, special ops units and military police, she said, "basically doing the same jobs."

"It's pretty much any soldier, sailor or airman out there; you really have to prove yourself," Yu said. "There are men who can't do the job just like women who can't do the job. Hard work and dedication will get you respect."

Female service members said some of the practical issues involving gender — housing, bathroom requirements, privacy concerns — work themselves out when you're part of a unit working under less-than-ideal conditions.

Rape, they said, is a concern inside the service or out, and an understood possibility if captured, as is torture or other abuse.

Former Sonoma County resident Chloe Mendelson, who just finished basic training in the Army and is stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, downplayed concerns that male soldiers will be overly protective of their female counterparts.

"People think that if a female is in a combat situation and just so happens to get shot, males will more than likely assist the injured female before the males," she said. "If a male were to actually do that in combat, that's just bad judgment."

The biggest concern, active service members and veterans said, is that a solider of any gender meets the physical requirements to carry out the job.

"There was a time when it was said women shouldn't be firefighters, police officers, plumbers or carpenters because they weren't physically able to do the job," said Countouriotis, who now oversees the Coast Guard's police and fire services department at Two Rock, which includes men and women. "In my generation, I've seen the transition, and it's a good one."

Sobecki-Engle and Mendelson said they have worked hard to perform above the physical standards set for women.

"If I expect them to respect me, I want to perform at their level," Sobecki-Engle said of her male colleagues. "As long as they see you're not going to falter under pressure, you can lead them."

Her father, Skip Engle of Cloverdale, said gender makes little difference in war.

"The notion that U.S. servicewomen have been shielded from actual combat is a popular fantasy," he said. "Bullets don't care who they fly towards, and returning fire is as natural as breathing when you are the intended target."

Very few women will qualify for these newly available positions, he said, but few men do either.

It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army's Delta Force.

Changes won't take place overnight. Service chiefs will have to develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, may take longer.

The services have until January 2016 to make a case that some positions should remain closed to women.

"I know women out there who will make great infantry officers, combat officers, combat soldiers and airmen," Yu said. "It's just a matter of time. We've been out there. In the long run, it will lead to higher leadership opportunities and combat credibility."

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

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