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The key word was “qualifications.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s astonishing announcement last week that women would be allowed in combat jobs from which they had been barred stirred up all sorts of emotional arguments for why women aren’t cut out for the work.

Some argued they’d be a distraction to men in the unit. Others worried that male soldiers would want to come to the aid of their injured female counterparts. Frankly, those arguments seem a little insulting to highly trained men already working on the battlefield.

I’m amazed more people weren’t surmising that women would want to paint their toenails and break out crying on the battlefield.

Many of the serious concerns about women in combat – unintended pregnancies and sexual assault among them – have become the reality during a decade of war that has seen women in more military roles in war zones than ever before.

Better attention to dealing with these problems was needed well before the ban on women in combat jobs was lifted.

As local veterans pointed out last week, women have already been on the front lines. They’re serving the country in harm’s way, yet they’re denied the opportunity to move into combat jobs that can advance a military career.

And the combat ban hasn’t stopped women from injuries or death; 152 women in uniform have died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The fact is that they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission,” Panetta told reporters during a Pentagon briefing last week. “For more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage, skill and patriotism.”

But here’s the key thing about Panetta’s remarks last week announcing that, on a recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was lifting the ban on women in direct ground combat roles: He made it crystal clear the military doesn’t plan on pandering to women.

The qualifications, he said, aren’t changing. Just because warrior jobs are open doesn’t mean that women are going to get them.

“Let me be clear,” Panetta said. “I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job. If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.”

What we want are rigorous standards for the toughest jobs defending our country.

That could mean we won’t see a surge of women entering newly opened combat jobs that require physical strength, given the reality that women’s bodies just aren’t built like men’s.

The United States isn’t a trailblazer on this issue. In Canada, where women have had access to combat roles for more than two decades, little more than 2 percent of combat jobs are filled by women, according to the Associated Press.

Many women won’t be cut out for the physical nature of combat jobs. Others will, and if they can pass the tests – the same tests men have passed – then why should they be turned down?

“Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier,” Panetta said. “But everyone is entitled to a chance.”

The tough standards should stay. The arbitrary gender discrimination should not.

email: djgee@buffnews.com