Minn. National Guard: Combat Changes 'a Long Time Coming'

Updated: 01/25/2013 8:01 AM KSTP.com By: Mitch Pittman

It's now official: the Pentagon announced Thursday it's lifting the ban on women serving in direct combat roles.

"If they can meet the qualifications for the job, they should have the right to serve regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation," said outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Later in the afternoon, members of the Minnesota National Guard said the change had been a long time coming. The reality is, women have been in combat for years now. During the decade long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, four women from Minnesota have been awarded Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat.

Staff Sergeant Andrea Drost has not only been deployed to Kuwait and Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard, she's also a perfect example of what these changes will do.

"There was recently a position that opened in Laverne, which is my hometown, for a human resource specialist, which is the position I hold here," said Drost. "I would have been interesting in applying for it because it's in my job field, it's in my hometown. But because but because it's in a field artillery unit, which is a combat arms unit, I would not have been able to apply because of the combat exclusion policy."

Out of the 13,300 member Minnesota National Guard, 16.5% is female, above the national average of enlisted women at 15%.

"It gives me a greater pool of soldiers to assign to all the jobs we have in the national guard," said Minnesota National Guard Director of Personnel Lt. Col. Matt Vatter. He added that while women in the Minnesota National Guard won't immediately be put into direct combat roles, there will be some effects sooner.

"This now gives female soldiers the opportunity to do those jobs in their home town, that they might not have been able to do before," said Vatter.

"The best qualified soldier is going to get the job, however, gender is no longer a discriminating factor, and so there's something to be said for that, we finally don't have barriers there," said Drost.

This will have an impact in Minnesota sooner than in most places. Even before Thursday's announcement, the Minnesota National Guard had been selected to be part of a pilot program with expanding the role of women in service. It will start in May, and while women won't be in direct combat roles, they will be in similar roles to what they do now in previously prohibited units.