SAN DIEGO - During her time in Iraq, Alma Felix would see her fellow female soldiers leave the Army installations where she worked at a desk job and head into combat with their male counterparts. But many returned home feeling that few knew of their contributions.
"We disappear into the background," the 27-year-old former Army specialist said. "You always hear we're losing our sons out there. And although women have fallen out there, you really don't see very much of it."
Now, with the Pentagon ending its ban on women in combat, Felix and other female troops hope the military's plan to open hundreds of thousands of combat jobs to them will lead society to recognize that they, too, can be courageous warriors.
In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday.
"We are the support. Those are the positions we fill and that's a big deal - we often run the show - but people don't see that," she said. "Maybe it will put more females forward and give people a sense there are women out there fighting for our country.
"It's not just you're typical poster boy, GI Joes doing it," she said.
Thursday's announcement promises to change the image of battlefields around the world, as debate rages on whether women can fight like men. What's clear is that the move will pave the way for women to earn higher pay and earn better promotions.
The shift is the military's biggest since the policy banning openly gay service members was lifted two years ago. And as was the case with "don't ask, don't tell," troops were expected to fall in line with the new rules.
The change overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units, and is expected to open up more than 230,000 combat positions that have been off limits to women.
"We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified," said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He said women have shown they are willing to fight and die alongside their male counterparts.
Across the country, members of the military of both sexes said they accepted the policy so long as women will have to meet the same standards as their male colleagues. Both men and women were skeptical about putting females in infantry units, however.
"This gives us more people to work with," said Army Sgt. Jeremy Grayson, assigned to field infantry at Fort Bliss, Texas. "But they would have to be able to do the physical stuff that men do ... They have to be able to pull their own weight."
Panetta said the qualifications will not be lowered and acknowledged that not all women will meet them. He said allowing women to serve in combat roles will strengthen the ability of the U.S. to win wars.
It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army's Delta Force.