“That lady ain’t no lady, sir. She’s my rifle squad leader!”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta left a nice little parting gift, depending on where you stand on the rights of military women. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey will lift the ban on women serving in combat. A fully “gender-integrated force by 2016” will potentially be completed in the U.S.armed forces, according to the independent Defense Department newspaper “Stars and Stripes” in their online edition today.

The Associated Press reported that Panetta’s action expanded an initiative last year in which nearly 15,000, practically all of them Army, combat positions were opened to women. An additional 230,000 positions in Army and Marine infantry units may open under the Defense Secretary’s proposal.

Including women in front-line combat has long been a hot-button issue steeped in lawsuits and rhetoric worthy of antebellum debates. Many supporters of women’s rights have looked to the history of the inclusion of female soldiers in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) — the state military — as a model. And while Israel is the only nation in the world to compel both men and women to military service, the record of women combatants has had a mixed record there over the years.

A landmark 1995 Israeli Supreme Court decision allowed women to qualify for combat pilot positions but it as well paved the path for women to serve in all IDF combat slots. The “Military Service Law” was amended, adding:

“The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.

Women comprise a third of all IDF soldiers. They serve in significant numbers in all units and make for an astounding 70 percent of service in the Caracal combat battalion. It is the only co-ed combat unit in the IDF. Meet this tough little cookie from the Caracal.

Having women in combat units will pose challenges just as it has in Israel, and how it likewise challenged old, salty chiefs and young sailors alike when the gender integration began on U.S. ships almost 35 years ago. In the really old days, it was considered bad luck to have women on ships. Today, women have met and tackled the last frontier, submarines.

There will be problems in combat: let’s get the big “P” (pregnancy) out of the way first; feminine hygiene; red light-green light issues; touching; sensitivity. You don’t have to start reading all those magazines like Gunny Sgt. Highway in “Heartbreak Ridge.” But if you have somehow learned some common sense, or can learn it, you are already halfway there.

Just a personal word now. The world’s not coming to the end. I have seen women do jobs of more than one man and do it in an outstanding manner. A woman may turn and run in the heat of battle. Men might do the same. We are different in temperament and in physiology but we fight the same enemy and do so for the same person, our foxhole buddy. This may be one of the best steps taken in the history of the U.S. I may be wrong. But I don’t think so.

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