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'Gender just wasn't an issue'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sgt. Sara Yoke was part of a humanitarian mission to a remote village in Afghanistan with the West Virginia Army National Guard when she and her fellow soldiers came under fire.

She was alongside a special operations troop bringing blankets and other winter supplies to villagers.

Yoke, a member of a public affairs unit, was covering the story as a journalist.

When the mission turned into a 45-minute gun battle, Yoke, her commander Lt. Todd Harrell and others took cover in front of the truck that had carried the supplies.

And Yoke kept working.

"I was incredibly impressed with her professionalism," Harrell said of Yoke. "She continued to do her job. She was calm and cool -- I mean she was phenomenal."

Yoke, now a 26-year-old living in Charleston, earned a Bronze Star and a Combat Action Badge.

As a woman, she is not allowed in a special forces unit like the one whose story she covered. But that's about to change.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced plans to allow women into combat roles that were previously closed to them.

Women have been close to the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade now. Lifting the ban on women means that now they'll be allowed into frontline positions and potentially elite commando jobs. Military officials have until 2016 to seek exceptions for roles they believe should remain closed to women.

The changes won't happen instantly, though. Some jobs may open this year. Others, like special operations forces, may take longer.

Should women be allowed into combat roles? That's not for Harrell to say, he said. But in his experience, the gender of his soldiers was not an issue.

"As a commander [with a] public affairs unit I had several females on my team and to me gender was irrelevant," Harrell said.

"[Yoke] had a job to do, male female or whatever ... gender just wasn't an issue and it's because of the way she carried herself as a solider. I think there's a lesson there."

Panetta was careful to point out that though the roles will be open to women, the requirements for getting those roles won't change.

Yoke agrees with that stipulation.

"I think if there are women who are able to meet those rigorous standards there's no reason they shouldn't be able to," Yoke said, adding that it takes a certain type of person to want to serve in combat roles. "I certainly think there are women who are capable. I don't think that there are a lot," Yoke said.

"Even having that as a possibility, I think it's outstanding," she said.

It will require a change in military culture, Yoke said.

"I don't want to say [the military is] chauvinistic but it might take 20 years for this to happen and the culture to change," she said.

As a woman among male soldiers, she had mixed experiences, she said.

She earned respect from some by being good at her job. Others sexually harassed her, she said. Sometimes men were hesitant to associate with her for fear something they said could be taken a wrong way, Yoke said.

"I just think that just because the ban was lifted doesn't mean there will be overnight changes," Yoke said. "Something this broad, it's going to be a challenge. There's a lot of attitudes that are going to be challenged. I understand both sides of it too. I just think it's really important for this to happen though."

Others, like Capt. Rechelle Hall of Teays Valley, say there are probably more disadvantages than advantages to allowing women in combat roles.

She fears that the standards will be lowered for women.

"Sometimes even though they say they're not lowering the standards, they sometimes do," Hall said. "And too, it's more issues than just the strength or the mental stamina. You're living with males and females in a high-level stress situation.

"Sometimes it's not a great idea."

Hall isn't the first to voice the opinion that men and women being in close contact while on special missions could add undue stress.

First Lt. Courtney Pierson, 15-year member of the West Virginia National Guard, doesn't think that would be a problem.

She hasn't served in Afghanistan or Iraq, but at times has been the only female while training for a mission in the United States.

"If you make it an issue, it will be an issue," Pierson said.... "If you can't work together and the mission isn't your focus, it's not going to work out real well."

Hall, who was part of a medical unit in Afghanistan, argued that allowing women into the new roles should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Among her concerns is safety, she said.

"If there's someone having to look out for you instead of doing their job, then yeah, that's an issue," Hall said. "Usually males try to look out for the females. I know that sounds chauvinistic, but it is what it is."

The Associated Press also contributed to this story. Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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