FORT EUSTIS, VIRGINIA— The Pentagon's recent decision to eliminate rules that exclude women from direct combat roles was merely symbolic for many women soldiers - who have already been in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When it comes to fighting on the front lines, Army Staff Sergeant Cassandra Partee has been there and done that. Her first deployment was to Iraq as part of an artillery unit eight years ago.
"We would go out on patrols and just conduct raids and things of that nature," she said.
On her second deployment to Iraq, she was wounded in action.
"I [in] one incident was hit by improvised explosive device that was attached to a guard rail," she explained.
Partee suffered shrapnel wounds to her face and back.
Since her last deployment, she has survived cancer and given birth to two babies.
In her current job with the Army’s Seventh Sustainment Brigade, she helps train other soldiers. She reflects on her experience in Iraq.
"There wasn’t anything discriminatory as far as what females could do over there," she said. "When it came time to be a gunner and be on the gun, females took the guns."
So it was no surprise to her when, in one of his final decisions as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta announced the lifting of rules excluding women from some combat roles.
"They serve. They’re wounded and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality," he said.
"These are the roles that we’ve played in the war. We’ve been there all along," said Staff Sergeant Partee. "They didn’t look at me and say, you’re a female you can’t do this. It was 'hey, we need a soldier. You need to get up there and do this.'"
Some women soldiers say they hear comments from male counterparts who don't believe women should be in certain combat units - though few express those sentiments openly.
One of Partee’s male counterparts, Sergeant Shawn Yearby - also an Iraq veteran - says he was surprised by Panetta's announcement.
"What first went through my mind, was uh-oh, you know, females are going into combat arms. But then I thought about it and I said, it all depends. It all depends on if they can handle it, they can handle it," he said.
Sergeant Partee has been able to balance life in the military with the other job in her life that she says is her highest calling.
"I will always be a mother first, but [by] the same token, I have the soldier in me. The scale is even," she said.
Even with the opening of more combat roles, few expect a big rise in the number of women in those roles. The military is planning no change in its physical requirements or training standards.
But for soldiers like Partee, the recognition that she can do the job goes a long way.