WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in ground combat roles is being praised by the first female combat veterans to be elected to Congress.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who was seriously wounded while serving in Iraq, said on Wednesday, “I applaud the decision by Secretary (Leon) Panetta to begin the process of lifting combat restrictions on women in the military. Throughout American history and in the last decade in particular women have served in combat zones with distinction and honor. In fact the Army has adopted the Combat Action Badge to all troops who engage in combat, including women.

Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

“This decision to allow women to serve in combat will allow the best man or woman on the frontline to keep America safe. There has always been some level of opposition to increasing the diversity in our military, whether it has been minorities or women. It is clear that the inclusion of groups like African Americans and Asians has made our military stronger.

“As a veteran who saw combat action, I know the inclusion of women in combat roles will make America safer and provide inspiration to women throughout our country.”

As a captain in the National Guard, Duckworth was mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom and deployed in 2004. As a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, she was one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq.

On Nov. 12, 2004, her helicopter was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). She lost both legs and part of the use of her right arm in the explosion, and was awarded the Purple Heart for her combat injuries.

During her recovery at Walter Reed, Duckworth was one of the highest-ranking amputees and became an advocate for her fellow soldiers. Her leadership was recognized when she was asked to testify before Congress.

After losing a close congressional race in 2006, she continued to serve as a major in the National Guard and became director of Illinois’ Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In 2009, Duckworth was tapped by President Obama to be assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Last November, Duckworth defeated the Republican incumbent in the 8th Congressional District, Joe Walsh, who had criticized her for talking about her military service. During the campaign, Walsh said, “I’m running against a woman who, I mean, my God, that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, the men and women who served us, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about.” Gov. Pat Quinn said Walsh owed Duckworth an apology.

Duckworth is also the first Asian American to represent Illinois in Congress.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said, “As a twice-deployed combat veteran, I have a first-hand appreciation and understanding of the contributions women in uniform make every single day, all around the world. I have had the honor of serving with incredibly talented female soldiers who, if given the opportunity, would serve as great assets in our ground combat units. It is crucial that we shed light on the great value and opportunities that these women bring.

“Today is a historic day for not only women currently serving in our armed forces, but for all of the women who have selflessly put their lives on the line in theaters of war throughout our nation’s history. Female service members have contributed on the battlefield as far back as the Civil War, when some disguised themselves as men just to have the opportunity to serve their nation.

“This decision by the Department of Defense is an overdue, yet welcome change, which I strongly support. I look forward to hearing the details of how this will be executed, and will support full and equal access for our highly capable female service members to serve our country in all roles, which will only stand to strengthen our armed forces, and our national defense.

“This change is a huge step toward maximizing their potential, and honoring the tremendous sacrifices that our military women have made throughout history.”

In 2004, Gabbard voluntarily deployed to Iraq with her fellow soldiers of the 29th Brigade Combat Team, eventually serving two tours of combat duty in the Middle East. She was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal during Operation Iraqi Freedom, was the first female Distinguished Honor Graduate at Fort McClellan’s Officer Candidate School, and was the first woman to ever receive an award of appreciation from the Kuwaiti military on her second overseas tour.

Gabbard continues to serve as a military police captain in the Hawaii National Guard. She has served in the State Legislature and on the Honolulu City Council, and was elected last November to fill the House vacancy left by Mazie Hirono, who was elected to the Senate.

Gabbard is also the first Hindu and the first Samoan American voting member of Congress.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) added: “Today’s news is a great step toward equality. These restrictions that block women from serving in active combat roles make no sense in today’s modern military. All Americans deserve the opportunity to defend our nation regardless of gender, and I know that the women who currently serve in the military think they should be treated the same as any other servicemember. Women serving in combat roles will strengthen our national security, and as a member of the Armed Services Committee, I will work closely with military and administration officials to see this change through.”

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