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Uncle Sam has, at last, officially acknowledged reality.

When Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Thursday lifted the ban on women serving in combat units, he was just affirming what already happens, many veterans and their families said.

“When I was in Iraq serving in mortuary affairs, as a woman, I would get into the Humvees and go in convoys to pick up remains from combat situations, and we came under fire every day,” said former Marine Jessica L. Goodell, of Bemus Point. “We are already in there, and maybe now officially we’ll be recognized.”

It has been impossible not to notice the increasing role that women play in America’s battles.

About 800 women have been wounded and 152 killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere over the last the decade by an enemy who shies away from front lines and finds cover mingling in the civilian populations. And two women have already earned the Silver Star, the third-highest medal for heroic action in combat.

“Every person in today’s military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die for our nation’s defense,” Panetta said in announcing that the ban is being lifted. “We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified.”

But don’t expect women to officially open fire on the enemy any time soon.

Military brass has until 2016 to make arguments on whether some combat unit positions, such as in Special Forces, should be off-limits to women.

The rigorous qualification process for combat roles, including infantry and armored units, will remain. Some women may not be able to cut it, Panetta acknowledged, “but everyone is entitled to a chance.”

That chance will likely lead to far more women in higher-ranked positions in the military, given that promotions to the very highest levels typically require combat experience.

“This decision finally opens the door for more qualified women to excel in our military and advance their careers, and obtain all of the benefits they have earned,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., long one of the leading advocates of women in combat.

But not everyone is thrilled over the expanded role for women.

Air Force veteran Natalie M. Ficarra, a former Niagara County resident who served three tours of duty in the Persian Gulf region during the Iraq War, wonders whether women fighting side by side with men might complicate combat missions.

“Say, a woman is injured on the front lines and a male soldier may want to come to her rescue, which may compromise the mission. I believe men instinctively want to help women in danger,” Ficarra, who grew up in Wilson, said in recalling that she never let gender obstacles get in her way during her four years of service. “However, with proper training, those situations can be addressed appropriately.

“If a woman is physically and mentally capable of doing that job and doing it well, then she should not be prohibited from doing it based on her gender. Men will have to treat her as another human being, not according to her gender role.”

Goodell said the forces of human nature cut both ways across the sexes.

“A male soldier could be wounded and a women’s instinct would be to nurse and care for the wounded soldier,” she said.

Marlene L. Roll, a former director of military services for Erie County who helped launch what is believed to be the country’s first female-focused Veterans of Foreign Wars post – Dorothy Kubik/Katherine Galloway Post 12097 – said anyone who argues that society lacks the stomach for women paying the ultimate price in war needs to get acquainted with current affairs.

“My military thought is, men and women should serve equally, and I know that there’s a touchy-feely part of this that the populace gets very upset about women coming home in body bags. But they already are,” Roll said.

She said she wants to see a little more detail on the issue but is in favor of opening up more opportunities for women who want to serve in combat.

“My thought is women are already in combat. They are already there, because there is no more front line. They are going house-to-house and things like that,” Roll said.

“If they want to be a Navy SEAL or in Special Forces and can pass the test and training to make it, let them. If they can’t get through the course, they don’t belong there. “They need to be able to do what the guys do,” Roll added, “because they have to do certain things above and beyond the average soldier’s requirements. Opening it up to allow them to apply, why not?”

Jody Hackemer, a Army National Guard recruiter for the last 10 years and a former Marine, offered reasons for why not.

“Personally, I feel it is a distraction to the men who are in combat armed units. I am a recruiter, and I’ve never run into a female who has said she wants to be in a combat unit, but I guess there are some out there,” said Hackemer, whose brother Army Sgt. James T. Hackemer lost his legs in Iraq and then in July 2011 was thrown to his death from a Darien Lake roller coaster.

“I don’t understand why they are trying to change something that is not broken.”

Derby resident Tracy R. Kinn, a former Marine who suffered a broken back while preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf War, is dead set against women in combat roles.

“My opinion is that females do not belong in combat. We belong in support roles to combat,” Kinn said.

“The way that America is, females are to be protected, not to be the protector. I personally feel that my male combat counterparts would be more concerned about my welfare than the mission.

“I think it is a very volatile situation if they open it up to women being infantrymen.”

Buffalo native Debbera M. Ransom, a Cold War veteran who served in Germany, said that while she does not object to women serving in combat, not every woman wants to be in direct combat.

“People assume that because women are serving in the military that we want to be a man,” Ransom said. “When I was in the military, I remember when I had my combat boots on and my fatigues on, and when my shift was over, I couldn’t wait to rush back to the barracks, take a shower and put on high heels.”

Men with strong local links to the military also weighed in on the change.

“We look at the way America has changed. We are moving in the right direction,” said Sergio R. Rodriguez, coordinator of the Office of Veterans and Military Affairs at Medaille College.

“Women are just as passionate and capable as their male counterparts. When I was in the Marines, I worked beside female Marines, and they were just as capable and prepared. I’m personally very proud to see the Pentagon has lifted the ban.”

Pendleton resident Phil Basinski, husband of National Guard Maj. Judy Izard, a pharmacist who served in Afghanistan, said his wife faced plenty of danger, even though technically she was not in a combat role – often traveling with convoys to remote Afghan villages to set up health clinics.

“My opinion is, if a person is qualified for it regardless of their age, gender or ethnic background, if they’re willing to go, well God bless them,” Basinski said.

When asked whether he would mind if his wife sought combat duty, he said, “If that’s what she wanted to do, I wouldn’t hold her back.”

Women in the military:

283,000 female service members have been deployed worldwide

800 have been wounded

152 have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere

20,000 have served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan

2 have earned the Silver Star for valor

Source: Congressional Research Service;

numbers are from the last 10 years

News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this report. email: dswilliams@buffnews.com and lmichel@buffnews.com