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Women in combat: US military on verge of making it official

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Then, as Black called in another round of fire, Dostum dialed enemy fighters by phone, so they, too, could hear her voice on his walkie-talkie: "He really berated them, saying 'You're so pathetic, American women are killing you. You need to surrender now,' " Black says.

Taliban forces did surrender the next morning, and the first female navigator to open fire in combat came to be known as the "Angel of Death" among the Afghans. That battle – and others – also made Black, now a major, the first woman to earn the Air Force's combat action medal.

Today, US military officials concede that despite prohibitions against women serving in combat – and despite efforts in some cases to keep women far from fighting – there are no defined front lines.

A decade after Black flew her first mission in America's war in Afghanistan, the ranks of women in the military are growing: They now make up 16 percent of the force, a number that is expected to grow to one-quarter by 2025.

And after a decade of war in which women increasingly play de facto combat roles across the armed services, the Pentagon is now considering opening up more jobs for women that will bring them ever closer to the battlefield.

It's a highly controversial prospect and the Pentagon is proceeding cautiously. In an early step last February, military officials rejected a congressional commission's recommendation that prohibitions on women in combat be lifted, announcing instead that they would be open, on a trial basis, 14,000 jobs previously closed to female service members.

"For me, I see it as talent management: I want to utilize the best talent I have," says the Army's top officer, Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno. "That's what has driven us to it: The women have proven it to us."

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