During her second deployment to Iraq, Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall found herself attached to an Army ground unit that was clearing roadside bombs. They had just found their 26th device of the day when one of their armored personnel carriers exploded. An ambush was on.
The chaos that unfolded over the next few hours was not a typical day for Pearsall. But under the Pentagon's decision to allow women into front-line combat units, officially announced Thursday, it could become much closer to the norm for women in U.S. uniforms.
As Pearsall tells the story, her vehicle came under intense fire that day in 2007, near the city of Baquba. The male soldiers in her carrier had already dashed out to join the fight, so she jumped onto the machine gun and began returning fire.
Outside a soldier lay unconscious. Pearsall opened the rear door and crawled to the man, who was 6-feet-2-inches and more than 200 pounds, twice her weight. From behind him, she clasped him in a bear hug and dragged him toward the vehicle. She fell once, then again. Somehow, she hauled him into the armored safety of the carrier.
After tearing off his protective vest, she realized his carotid artery had been torn by shrapnel. As blood spurted all over, she closed her eyes, stuck her fingers into his neck and squeezed. He screamed, and she thanked the heavens. He was still kicking.
What happened next seemed almost cinematic. Emerging from a purplish haze outside, a medic jumped into the carrier and set his kit beside her.
"Are you a medic?" he asked.
Heck no, Pearsall replied.
"I'm the photographer," she said.
The question that now looms over the Pentagon as it moves toward full gender integration is whether female troops like Pearsall, for all their bravery under fire, can perform the same dangerous and physically demanding tasks day in and day out, for weeks at a time, as permanent members of ground combat units like the infantry or armored cavalry.
Since 1994, women have technically been barred from serving in those front-line units. But throughout the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, women -- working as medics, intelligence officers, photographers, military police officers and in a host of other jobs -- have been routinely "attached" to all-male ground combat units, where they have come under fire, returned fire, been wounded and been killed.
To supporters of Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta's decision to rescind the prohibition on women in combat, the experiences of those women proved that the distinction between being "attached" to a combat unit and actually serving in one was outdated, and pointless.
"When the military goes to full integration, it allows commanders to put the best person in the job, not just the best man," said Greg Jacob, a former Marine Corps officer who is now policy director for the Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy group for women in the military. "If the best shot in the platoon is a woman, I can make her a sniper. But until now, I couldn't do that."
But to skeptics of the policy change, it is one thing for women to perform well when they come under fire while temporarily attached to all-male combat units. It is a far different thing, they argue, to carry out the daily mission of hunting down and engaging enemy forces as an infantryman or tank commander.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, defines it as a difference between "incidental combat," as women have faced in convoys or attacks on bases, and "the direct combat duties of our advanced and most elite ground operators."
Hunter said in a statement, "The question here is whether this change will actually make our military better at operating in combat, specifically finding and targeting the enemy."
Ask Pearsall, who was decorated for her actions in Baquba and received a medical retirement from the Air Force in 2008, and the answer is simple: Yes, women can do it, and I already have.
During her four-month Iraq tour in 2007 -- cut short by injuries -- she went on patrols almost daily, wearing the same heavy body armor and Kevlar helmet as the men, while lugging camera equipment. She, too, came under fire. She, too, fired back. She, too, saw friends die.
"I didn't sit around thinking: 'I'm a woman, I don't think I can carry this gun,'" she said. "And I can't speak for the men, but I feel that when the bullets were flying, they didn't care that I was a woman, as long as I was pulling the trigger."
She added: "I contributed to the team effort. If I can do that, that's all that matters."
The armed services are now developing gender-neutral standards for all of their jobs, and the Pentagon has vowed that those standards will not be lowered to make it easier for women to join combat units.
At present, the Army, for instance, allows women to pass their physical fitness tests with fewer push-ups and a slower two-mile run, than men.
Will women be able to meet a new, single standard? Kristen Rouse, a first lieutenant in the New York Army National Guard who just returned from her third deployment to Afghanistan, said that she was confident they could.
"In my fitness test, I always pass by the standards of a male of my equivalent age," she said. "And I'm not an athlete. The physical demands are not insurmountable."
Jacob, who was a training company commander for both male and female Marine recruits, said the key would be to make women systematically train to the higher standards.
When the Corps has done that -- by requiring women to do more pull-ups or longer marches with rucksacks -- they consistently succeeded, he said. And at the same time, better training has reduced weight-bearing injuries to backs and hips -- major concern among female troops, he said.
Like many female service members, Rouse, who always wanted to serve in a tank unit, said she believed lifting the prohibition would help women climb higher on the military career ladder.
"There is prestige there, when you can say, 'I got to work with the Afghan army,' or 'I was with a unit in multiple firefights,'" she said. "There is a lot more prestige there than if you say, 'Hey I spent the last nine months shipping equipment from Bagram.'"
But Pearsall, who now owns a photography school in Charleston, S.C., said she hoped the policy change would do something else as well: Give women more credibility with their commanders and health care providers when they return from war with physical injuries or mental health problems.
She says she had trouble convincing people that she had sustained brain and neck injuries in Iraq because of combat.
"People just assumed I was not injured in combat, because I had not been in a combat unit," she said.