For retired Navy Cmdr. Beth Coye, the announcement that women will no longer be banned from combat roles comes too late.
"My dream ever since I was a little girl when my dad was off fighting a war was to become a Naval officer like my dad and command a ship," said Coye, 75, of Ashland.
"I didn't get to command a ship, but dreams are really coming true for young women who wish to go to the top and serve where they want — flying planes, driving ships," she added. "The experiment is over. They have proved themselves."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday that a ban on women serving in combat is being lifted. The front lines today are more fluid than in past wars, and many women in the military are already fighting and being wounded or dying alongside their male counterparts, he noted. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 152 have been women.
Recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the decision overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
The change will come in phases with the military brass being required to report back to the Defense Department by mid-May on their initial implementation plans. The services have until January 2016 to explain why some combat roles should remain off limits to women.
Medford resident Heather Bessey, 34, is a former corporal wounded by an enemy mortar round that hit the Army's Camp Anaconda, some 60 miles north of Baghdad, on July 3, 2003.
"We are already out there on the front lines," said the former medical specialist. "But there isn't really a line that delineates the front and the rear now."
However, Bessey, the first known female member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Rogue Valley Chapter No. 147, does have one concern about dropping the ban.
"One of the major cons I see is that the men in the unit feel somewhat protective of women," she said. "I would be afraid they will be worried about the women in the unit."
The result is they could become less focused on their mission, she cautioned.
Retired Air Force Colonel Linda Sindt, 69, of Medford, who worked in personnel most of her nearly quarter of a century in service, applauded the move by the Pentagon.
"It is long overdue for it to happen," she said. "The modern battlefield is already obscured. It is hard to figure out where the battle lines are. Women have already been drawn into combat."
Sindt, whose late husband, Duane, was a retired Air Force major, noted the change doesn't diminish men's roles in the military service. Rather, it will improve the strength of the military overall, she said.
"It was the last barrier for full upward mobility and integration for women in terms of top leadership positions," said Sindt who, while working in the Pentagon in the 1980s, served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women.
"I'd be fighting to get into the cockpit," she said when asked what her goals would be if she were a young officer now.
Former Army infantry officer Larry Rupp, 66, of Medford, who was wounded in Vietnam, shrugs off the fact women will be able to serve in combat.
"I have no problem with it," he said. "It would be a voluntary thing. No woman would be forced to do it."
Other countries have had women in uniform fighting alongside men for years, he said.
"They do a great job," said the retired Oregon State Police detective.
However, he did express concern they could suffer abuse should they become prisoners of war.
Ashland resident Jim Klug, 66, who also was wounded in Vietnam while as an enlisted man in the infantry, is still mulling it over.
"When it comes down to it, I don't know if it makes much difference what the sex of person is when they come to your aid," said Klug, the Oregon commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
"The assigned task is the issue, not the sex of the person," he said. "The ability to have the stamina to perform the assigned task would be the issue for me."
He recalled times in the central highlands of Vietnam when his unit was on the move, wading through streams and climbing mountains in extreme heat and high humidity.
"We were loaded down with ammo and our gear," he said. "I remember being beat, totally exhausted."
He also remembers when some men couldn't keep up under the physical stress and would drop out of the formation. If a female soldier were to drop out in those circumstances, that soldier would likely be the target of derision focused on the fact she was a woman, he said.
"For me, the end outcome would be the determinant factor whether they could do combat and all that comes with it," he said.
No one — man or woman — should be allowed to serve in any capacity unless he or she can do the job, said Coye, whose father was Rear Admiral John S. Coye, Jr., who commanded the USS Silversides submarine which sank 14 enemy ships during World War II.
"The physical requirements have to be gender-neutral," she stressed.
She was a general line officer, but too senior to serve aboard ship by the time women officers were allowed in that role, she said.
Noting that she is gay, she left the Navy after 20 years because her sexuality was an issue at the time, she said.
Now, with women being allowed to serve in combat, another milestone has been achieved, she said.
"It makes a whole lot of sense to not hold women back," Coye said. "History is marching on."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.