Joanna Walters: Leon Panetta's announcement merely puts an official seal on the involvement of women on the battlefield
The key to the news that women will be allowed into combat is the word "official". Women, particularly US servicewomen, have now been in combat for years – it's just been unofficial.
They've won medals, killed the enemy and been killed themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan on a scale never seen in any war before, from the Crimea to the second world war to Vietnam to the Gulf.
As early as 2004, it became clear that there was something very different for women about the conflicts the US, Britain and its allies had got themselves into.
I went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to report on the story of the Witmer sisters that was being told as a modern-day, female version of Saving Private Ryan.
The three sisters were all serving soldiers in Iraq but one had been killed and the others had been called back to the homeland to discuss whether they should go back to the warzone and risk the family losing one or both of the other two siblings.
Michelle Witmer, 20, had become the first Army National Guard women killed in combat when she was blown up in Baghdad, becoming the 17th female casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her twin sister, Charity, and their older sister, Rachel, survived.
At the church where the family was holding a memorial for the dead sister, I encountered an extraordinary sight in the foyer: Sergeant Susan Sonnheim of the Wisconsin National Guard was leaning heavily on a cane with a patch over one eye, in full dress uniform.
She had been blown sky high by a roadside bomb while on a night patrol in Iraq. She was still full of shrapnel, literally, and was in constant pain from serious spinal and limb injuries, as well as losing the sight on one of her eyes. She had only survived because a bullet had been slowed by her Kevlar vest and then stopped by a tobacco tin in the pocket, which contained the tobacco that many chew "in combat" to keep them alert.
Sonnheim, who won the Purple Heart for her wounds, explained that the issue of whether women were or were not allowed into combat became irrelevant in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the nature of the insurgent enemy. There was no frontline, only pockets of conflict and moving, urban, guerilla forces ebbing and flowing in the mountains, deserts and villages.
"There is no reason for women not to be in combat. It's a buddy system – you look after the person next to you whether they are male or female. Once you are a soldier, that's the way it is, a soldier is a soldier," Sonnheim said. Male colleagues standing with her, also in dress uniform, agreed.
President Bill Clinton opened up 90% of military jobs to women in 1994, but they still cannot serve in the infantry, artillery or special forces and are not officially sent into combat on the ground.
Infantrymen have endured extremely rough conditions in the latest conflicts: they patrol away from base for days on end with little sleep or food, no hygiene arrangements, repeatedly involved in fierce firefights and in danger of being picked off by bombs or snipers.
Meanwhile, one woman who paid the ultimate price was Captain Kimberly Hampton, 27, who was shot down in 2004 by an Iraqi missile fired at her Kiowa combat helicopter as she flew it near Fallujah, thus becoming the first US woman pilot to be killed in combat.
The funeral of the only child of Ann and Dale Hampton brought out almost the entire small town of Easley, South Carolina, as she took her last journey, in a casket draped in the Stars and Stripes on the back of a horse-drawn carriage.
"This is a 100% volunteer army. The women should be given the opportunity to serve their country in any job if they feel the need and the desire," her mother Ann told me. Her daughter's ambition was to make it to the rank of general. Instead, she made it to the ranks of hero, legend and groundbreaker.
US servicewomen have earned bronze star medals for valour in Iraq and Afghanistan for acts such as sustained firing from the turrets of armoured vehicles to protect ambushed colleagues wounded on insurgent-infested streets.
And it would be a brave soul to tell Dawn Halfaker that she wasn't allowed into combat.
I met Halfaker at the Veteran's Hospital in downtown Manhattan the last time Prince Harry was visiting New York and went to meet wounded warriors there.
Distracted by her mop of bright ginger hair and a dazzling grin, it was a shock to notice, after talking to her for several minutes, that she was, in fact, missing an arm.
A promising schoolgirl basketball player and former military police captain, Halfaker was serving in Iraq and was ambushed on patrol, waking up from explosions and flying bullets missing her right arm.
She had joined the military to be "part of something that was bigger than myself". She still is, now working with wounded veterans and on government military technology projects.
Women are Marines and submariners, pilots and grunts, prisoners of war, veterans with wounds and post-traumatic stress disorder, tales of war and the camaraderie of combat – just like the men.
The idea of women in combat may be distasteful to some, but it has already happened and, besides, the definition of equality is having the same opportunity – even to kill and be killed on the field of battle.
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