- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2012

Pentagon policies bar Staff Sgt. Marie Martinson from direct ground combat, but she nonetheless has taken on the No. 1 killer of troops in Afghanistan: improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

What’s more, disabling and dismantling roadside bombs is a job she loves.

“Defeating enemy IEDs? There’s a rush you can’t get any other way,” says Sgt. Martinson, 29.

She is one of about 50 women who serve in the Air Force’s 1,050 explosive-ordnance disposal technician positions - jobs that have taken female troops close to the front lines for years.

On Monday, the Pentagon opened for female troops about 14,000 support positions that previously had been withheld from them, allowing women to fill jobs below the brigade level.

Though still banned from ground combat roles, women have more opportunities to serve in units closer to battlefields.

A veteran of 4 1/2 years, Sgt. Martinson is one of two female bomb techs in the 88th Air Base Wing Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and has been deployed twice to Afghanistan.

Roadside bombs “are their No. 1 weapon against us,” Sgt. Martinson says of Taliban fighters and insurgents. “To be the one that’s able to go and defeat that and be able to take them out - it’s very rewarding.”

‘There are no front lines’

The Air Force has long allowed women to be assigned to about 99 percent of its positions, so most of the new jobs for women have opened in the Marine Corps, the Navy and the Army.

The Marines opened 371 positions to women, and will allow female volunteers to participate in an officer infantry course as part of a research project this summer.

The Navy opened 60 positions, and the Army 13,139.

Women account for about 14.5 percent of the 1.4 million active-duty force.

Two years ago, Congress ordered a review of the Pentagon’s policies on women in combat, spurred by reports of heroism by female troops in Afghanistan and Iraq [-] wars that often featured no clearly defined front lines.

Of the 6,376 U.S. military personnel who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 144 have been women.

“The last 11 years of warfare have really revealed to us there are no front lines,” Brig. Gen. Barrye Price, director of human resources policy for the Army. “There are no rear echelons. Everybody was vulnerable to the influence of the enemy.”

However, the Pentagon is maintaining its ban on women in combat roles, despite the recommendation of a blue-ribbon panel set up by a then-Democrat-controlled Congress in 2009.

The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a group of civilians and active-duty and retired military members, recommended to President Obama a year ago that he remove all job barriers for women.

The last time the Pentagon reviewed women’s roles was in 1994, three years after the Persian Gulf War.

President Clinton lifted the ban on women serving on combat aircraft and ships.

Tough standards

For Sgt. Martinson, the question about whether women should serve in combat is moot: She says there are plenty of female troops already engaged in combat.

“We’re not in jobs that are described as a combat jobs. But when you’re out there, the enemy brings the fight to you. And we do fight back,” she says.

And she is ever ready to fight.

Standing 5 feet 7 inches and weighing 150 pounds, Sgt. Martinson carries her 80-pound pack of ammunition, tools, firearms, body armor, food, water and explosives into the field on missions, just like her male counterparts.

In addition, she also often carries the 35-pound robot that detects and destroys roadside bombs.

Out in the field, “it’s miserable, hot - really hot, like 110 degrees. You’re sleeping in the dirt. But I don’t know, some people like it,” she says.

Training to become a bomb tech is an arduous endeavor: Recruits must endure a rigorous monthlong course that weeds out those unsuitable for the work.

Only then does the real explosive-ordnance disposal training actually begin - a nine-month course that pushes recruits to their physical, psychological and emotional limits as they learn how to handle and defuse everything from Civil War-era cannonballs to nuclear weapons.

Sgt. Martinson says no standards - physical or otherwise - should be lowered to accommodate women.

“I don’t think it’s about being a boy or a girl,” she says. “It’s ‘Do you meet those standards?’ Can you do three pull-ups and run that fast?”

When deployed, she usually works in a team of three, usually with two male bomb techs attached to Army infantry units. Just last week, she completed her first mission as team leader - the bomb tech who wears the cumbersome protective suit and makes all of the decisions during a mission.

She says the primary emotion she experiences while disabling an explosive is not fear, but frustration.

“It’s too hot, the robot’s not working right, someone got through the cordon - a local will walk right past it, and you get mad. We’re just focused on the actual item.”

Sgt. Martinson says civilians often are surprised to find out what she does for a living. Many say, “I didn’t know there were girls in the bomb squad,” she says.

When she wears a bomb-tech sweatshirt, some will ask her if her boyfriend is in an explosive-ordnance disposal unit.

“Yes, he is, but so am I,” she says.