WASHINGTON — One was a Black Hawk pilot in Iraq who left the Army after she lost out on the chance to advance to an elite special operations helicopter combat unit because it was off limits to her as a woman.
Another was a Marine captain who went on infantry foot patrols in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, but left active duty after she decided that her only future as a woman in the Marines was a lifetime of logistics or support units.
The third, a brigadier general who joined the Marines in a different era, made her peace with reality, stuck it out and rose to become the first woman to command Parris Island, the service’s famous South Carolina training center.
For all three officers, the military’s ban on women in combat was not so much a glass ceiling as a seemingly bulletproof one that limited their career advancement options even as women played an increasingly important role in defending their country.
For them, the significance of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision last week to lift the 1994 ban on women in combat was not just that it gives them the opportunity to fight but that it offers women a chance to advance in a career in which combat experience remains essential.
“Growing up in America, you don’t encounter this kind of discrimination," said the Marine captain, Zoe Bedell, 27, a Princeton graduate, recalling her four years on active duty. Now in the Marine Reserve, she remains a plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Pentagon for its policies on women and no longer envisions a career in the military. “I think my ship has sailed," she said.
Although women often found themselves engaging in ground warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, the military did not officially count their actions as combat, and their battlefield experience went unrecognized. Many left in anger and frustration, or just disappointment at hitting a wall.
“Special operations is something I would have tried for, and if I had gotten it, I probably would have stayed around longer," said the Black Hawk pilot, Lindsey Melki, 30, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The Parris Island commander, Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, 47, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, chose to accept the strictures and, like other American military women of her generation, rose on a path that was available to her. Although she declined to be interviewed for this article, in an interview in Afghanistan in 2010 she talked about younger military women who were chafing at the combat restrictions.
“Some of these kids, they grew up without barriers," she said. “But from my perspective, we are where we need to be." In an emailed statement on Friday, Reynolds said she now looked forward to seeing “that change is implemented the right way."
‘Why can’t I?’
Melki began a 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2007. She spent much of her time there ferrying infantrymen on combat missions. On more than a few occasions she was a pilot for Special Forces troops — the Army’s Green Berets — who were hunting down insurgent leaders. Flying with the aid of night-vision goggles, her job was to drop them as swiftly and stealthily as possible into contested areas.
When her deployment ended, Melki looked around for new assignments and found herself dreaming of joining a special operations aviation regiment, an elite Army unit known as the Night Stalkers. After all, she had already flown Special Forces on secret missions.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that?’" she said.
The answer: Because of the Pentagon’s ban on women in combat, which prohibited women from serving in special operations units like the Night Stalkers. So Melki watched as friends and peers — including pilots she considered no better or more experienced than she was — were accepted in the Special Forces.
Melki headed to Fort Jackson, S.C., where she commanded a basic training company of new recruits. She remained there until 2011, when she left the Army. Today, Melki is a Tillman Military Scholar at the Stern School of Business at New York University, and her new dream is to work in government to help veterans and their families. But with the announcement of the end of the ban, she cannot help wistfully wondering: What if?
In the 2010 interview, over dinner in one of the mess halls at Camp Leatherneck, Reynolds, the brigadier general who was then a colonel, echoed the Defense Department policy of the time — as would be demanded of a senior officer — and said she did not think that women belonged in the infantry.
“I don’t think they should close with and destroy the enemy," she said, describing the hunt-and-kill mission of infantrymen. “When you go out and see what the infantry does — the way they live, the way they train — it’s good that it’s all male."
As her email made clear on Friday, she has changed along with the Pentagon. What no one will ever know is whether she would have risen higher than a one-star general in charge of a training mission — as high as some of the Marine male commanders who are her peers — if the Pentagon’s change had come sooner.