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.