NEWPORT NEWS -- -- It was 2004 in Iraq, and Cassandra Partee knew something didn't feel right.
She was driving back from a five-hour patrol that had turned into an 11-hour patrol. It was 1 a.m., and she scanned the road as a vehicle up ahead swept the area with floodlights.
Then came something that wasn't supposed to be there, something attached to a guardrail.
"At that point, there's really nothing you can do about it, just pray," she said. "So I stepped on the gas and prayed. The bomb went off on my truck."
The blast injured Partee and her commander, also a woman. It was the kind of potentially hazardous duty that women in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely performed. Partee, who received a Purple Heart for her injuries, had trained in field artillery before her first deployment. But once in Iraq, she did whatever she was called upon to do.
She drove trucks. She went with combat patrols on house-to-house raids because the U.S. wanted female troops to search Iraqi women civilians.
Earlier this year, Partee was back at Fort Eustis in Newport News when outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta decided to lift restrictions that would open up infantry positions to women, moving them closer. Partee, who is now a staff sergeant, accepted the headlines with a shrug.
"I was like, 'Oh, that's nice.' I don't have a problem with it, but that's because that is what I've known. It just seems normal to me."
Last gender barrier?
For the Army, the work of transforming Panetta's groundbreaking move into new standards falls to Training and Doctrine Command, headquartered at Fort Eustis. TRADOC oversees 32 Army schools organized under eight specialized centers that train more than 500,000 each year.
Panetta's decision rescinds a 1994 rule that blocked women from serving in smaller ground combat units below the brigade level. Generally, brigades are based farther from the front lines and number between 3,000 and 5,000 people.
Women already serve as combat pilots in the Navy and Air Force. The Navy recently opened up the submarine service to female sailors. The 1994 barrier was seen as one of the last gender barriers in the military.
Panetta and other military leaders said the policy was outdated, meant for a time when wars were fought by conventional, standing armies with clearly demarcated front lines. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing like that. Women -- and men, for that matter -- could easily be in harm's way while in driving in a convoy or searching civilians, the type of duty Partee did all the time
As for opening up more jobs to women, Partee is fine with that. Her father was a command sergeant major with 24 years of service. One brother is a staff sergeant, another is a sergeant first class. She has followed in her father's career, becoming a specialist in chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological threats.
"I like knowing I have other opportunities to go to different areas," she said.
Others are not nearly as comfortable with Panetta's decision. Critics fear the military will lower its standards to admit women to the new positions or that commanders will be pressured to push women into these jobs in the name of diversity, or to meet quotas..
Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, said women are simply not as capable in warfare as men.
"Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or help fellow soldiers survive in direct ground combat," she said when the decision was announced in January.
And if standards are compromised, it will increase resentment and harassment in the ranks, she said.
TRADOC is working on two efforts in the wake of Panetta's announcement, said Col. Chris Kubick, a TRADOC spokesman.
The first is a scientific review all jobs and career paths for enlisted personnel and officers. The study is being conducted in conjunction with U.S. Army Medical Command, U.S. Army Research Institute for Environmental Medicine and Army Research Institute.
The idea, Kubick said, is to develop gender-neutral standards for jobs and careers in the Army, by studying the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics required for these jobs.
Some critics have called attention to the physical differences between men and women -- the ability to lift heavy loads or march with a full backpack. Kubick doesn't buy the emphasis.
"Most people believe it's the physical aspects of being in the infantry that would disqualify most women," he said. I'm not sure that's true."
The Army will also focus on matching a person's temperament and personality with the right job. For example, a combat medic might require more empathy than brute strength. And who is to say only women will face challenges in meeting new physical requirements?
"Once we establish those physical standards, it will eliminate some men from being infantrymen," Kubick said. "It's meant to match up the right talent with the right position."
Kubick said gender isn't the point.
"We don't need to figure out gender standards," he said. "We need to figure out gender-neutral standards."
A December report from the Congressional Research Service noted the military has different standards for men and women on fitness tests and that could lead to different standards for jobs. "Gender neutral" could mean that men and women have to exert the same amount of energy -- theoretically, a man would have to carry a 90-pound artillery shell while a woman could handle smaller ordnance because she would exert the same effort.
"We reject that notion," Kubick said. "That is not going to play when we talk about MOS (military occupational specialty) standards. You either meet the standard or you don't."
The second TRADOC effort will focus on institutional and cultural barriers toward integrating women. Kubick said his own attitudes toward women have changed during his career. Early on, he was a military police officer in an all-male unit. His second unit, where he served as squad leader, included a woman.
"We went out on a ruck march, and it was difficult," he recalled. "She ended up leading it while I had some of the guys falling out."
It was a mind-changing moment for him.
"She was a Cajun from Louisiana," he said, laughing. "I'm not sure if that was relevant or not, but she was very tough and she proved herself, and that made a lasting impression on me. Women can be just as strong, or stronger than men. Before when I was in an all-male unit, I probably had a different attitude."
Some women soldiers at Fort Eustis said they can see both sides.
Staff Sgt. Valerie Gregg, an eight-year veteran, deployed to Iraq three times. Although she was never in the direct line of fire, she worked around supply sites and warehouses that were always possible targets for rocket-propelled grenades or mortar rounds.
"From the time I got in country, I didn't feel safe at all," she said.
And she understands how big of a change it is.
"I've always had mixed feelings about women in combat," she said. "Talking to some of the more experienced combat males, I understand why we weren't allowed in combat. Now that it's being lifted, I guess it shows there is some type of balance going on."
Sgt. Michelle Cuffee, a seven-year veteran, echoed the idea of mixed feelings.
"The good thing about it is that it gives some women the opportunity who want to get on the front lines and contribute to the larger fight," she said.
The concern, she said, is "how they would be treated. The Army raises us that everybody is equal. Hopefully, they get out there, they do a good job and they save the country, right?"
She laughs, but then turns serious.
"My personal opinion, it needs to happen. It needs to be ... where all soldiers are created equal. Me personally? I wouldn't do it. I like what I'm doing now. If I had to do it? Why not?"
Partee, the Purple Heart recipient, had nothing but praise for how men and women soldiers interacted during her deployment.
"There wasn't any discrimination," she said. "The majority of my battalion was male, but they didn't treat us any different. There were female gunners. We had female convoy commanders. I would drive, whatever they needed me to do. I was out there doing it."
Opening more jobs to women has an added benefit as the Army deals with spending cuts and operating more efficiently, according to Kubick.
"As the Army downsizes, it becomes even more important to match the right talent with the right position," he said. "Women provide a significant amount of talent. So it's inefficient when we don't offer to women all the opportunities we offer to men."
Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this story.