World War II was the turning point that earned women full-fledged military status. In 1948, after fierce debate, Congress approved allowing women to serve in the regular forces of all branches of the service all the time, not just in war.
In peacetime, the Pentagon retreated back to assigning females to "women's work." They got few chances at promotion and couldn't be admirals or generals. Although military nurses risked their lives in Korea and Vietnam, the military insisted women weren't fit for combat conditions.
The equal rights movement prompted some changes — in 1967, Congress got rid of a law limiting women to 2 percent of the military and opened up promotions to higher service grades.
But the armed services didn't welcome women back in a big way until the nation cut off its guaranteed supply of men.
In 1973, the draft ended and the all-volunteer military was born. Short on male volunteers, the Defense Department began seriously recruiting women and assigning them a wider range of jobs. In 1975, the service academies were opened to women.
Women grew to more than 10 percent of America's force by the 1980s.
FRONT LINES BLUR
More than 40,000 women deployed for the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. They worked alongside men, flying helicopters, driving trucks, guarding bases and firing missiles as Americans at home watched on television news.
Officially women were banned from combat. But there were no clear front lines. Women soldiers and Marines were at risk wherever Scud missiles fell.
"They always said the American public will not live with women coming back in body bags," said Vaught. "Well, they did. We found out there wasn't a big reaction from the public. They recognized that these women were there doing their jobs. We have adjusted to that as a people."
After the Gulf War, jobs flying combat planes and serving on warships were opened to women. And some restrictions on combat-related jobs in the Army and Marines were eased.
More than 200,000 women serve in the military now — 15 percent of a force of 1.4 million. And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have obliterated any remaining notion that they can be kept out of the fight.
With the military straining to staff two wars at once, everyone was needed. But battle lines were jagged; insurgents could be anywhere. Women in support jobs found themselves in firefights and blasted by roadside bombs. And their gender made them especially valuable on some patrols: They could search and interview Muslim women whose culture forbid such contact with men.
In 2012, to reflect the new realities, the Defense Department changed its rules to officially allow women into many jobs they were already doing, but in units closer to the fighting. They were still banned from the most dangerous jobs, such as being infantry soldiers or Special Operations commandos.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced an end to the ban on women in combat. Women have become an integral part of the service, fighting and dying alongside men, Panetta said. In fact, 152 women in uniform have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The time has come," he said, "for our policies to recognize that reality."
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.
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