WASHINGTON — This is why Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell walked away from active service to her country: During her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, Bedell, then a lieutenant, ran a team of 47 female Marines in Helmand province. The location and the jobs were about as tip-of-the-spear as it gets, said Bedell, who's now 27 and a Marine reservist.
She and her team went door-to-door on patrol, and in doing so faced the same dangers as the male Marines who were doing the same job. They were one of the so-called Female Engagement Teams.
Her team, though, wasn't allowed to officially be living or working at the tip of the spear, so every 30 days or so they had to ship out to a "safer" spot.
"Of course, moving is always dangerous, which means that unnecessary movement is unnecessarily dangerous," she said. "We were willing. We were needed. But we weren't allowed. And the sole reason for that was that we were women.
"It became very clear to me that I was working in an organization which officially viewed me as a second-class citizen. I knew it was time to get out."
Welcome to the Kevlar ceiling, and a prime reason that the Pentagon recently ended what was widely seen as an increasingly illogical ban on women in combat. The ban was running counter to reality. Women in the military already were serving on the front lines, just not getting credit for their combat roles because it was officially prohibited.
Those familiar with the impact of the ban on women in combat say that while public chatter has focused on emotional and sensational issues — where will female troops take bathroom breaks, or can women be expected to carry 200-pound male soldiers to safety? — the reasons to lift it rest in the numbers.
About one in five junior officers across the services, for instance, are women. But because official combat roles were ruled out of bounds for women, and those roles are always at least the tiebreaker, if not the primary determinant, in promotions to higher ranks, the percentages of women decline as ranks increase. By the time service members reach the rank of general, women are down to about one in 12, according to Pentagon statistics.
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Department of Defense hadn't looked backward to try to project what gender diversity in the ranks would look like if the combat ban had been lifted before this last decade of overseas wars.
Still, he said a Pentagon report last year to Congress and similar report by the Rand Corp. found no evidence of women "having less than equitable opportunities to compete and excel" before the ban was lifted.
Other concerns, such as more women among the higher ranks would change the nature of the military in decades to come, were widely dismissed. Women who volunteer for service are volunteering to follow orders, just like men who volunteer, military experts said.
The Pentagon report did note that women remained in the military longer than 20 years less often than men did, and that's the point in a career at which promotions to the top are made.
But military experts and some women in the service say that misses the point. About 80 percent of generals come from combat backgrounds. Banned from combat, women would see their careers being limited. In November, for instance, 237,000 positions in the military, such as infantry, were closed to women.
"If you're on a track to try to become a general, all the rotations you have in your portfolio impact your ability to move up," said Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This acknowledgement that they are in combat will allow women to get that heft that will allow more of them to move up in the ranks and get those top jobs."
Tammy Schultz, the national security and joint warfare director at the U.S. Marine Corps War College, which deals mostly with colonels and above, said that even in her classes, women were sparse. So while the studies accurately indicate that women leave the service before advancing, it's a classic chicken or egg question:
Are they leaving early because they see the limitations, or do their early exits account for the lack of progress?
"Most general and flag officers come from the combat arms, and if you aren't allowed to serve on the front lines, by definition your ability to rise through the ranks is more difficult, frankly, whether you are a man or a woman, at that point," Schultz said.
Critics note that women leaving instead of staying in the service meant the United States wasn't getting the best return out of the investment it was making in female officers.
In combat zones, military leaders acknowledged that women have been needed this past decade.
In Iraq, for instance, the lack of women when searching door-to-door for weapons in Anbar province meant that male troops were often left to search Iraqi women, a fact that enraged many Iraqi men and some claim fueled the insurgency. A male soldier searching a woman in Iraq was seen as a sexual assault. When the solution became to allow husbands to witness the searches, men complained that they were being forced to watch U.S. soldiers rape their wives.
This led the Marines to create all-female units known as "lioness teams," which in Afghanistan were renamed female engagement teams, such as the one that Bedell led.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Armed Service Committee and was a military lawyer in Iraq, said wars in which everyone was at the front, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, had shown "women serving valiantly all over the world. The concern is, will standards over time be diminished? If they're not, it would be hard to complain."
Bedell noted the evidence of the past decade proved that the old system wasn't working for anyone.
"The Marine Corps was hardly at the forefront of gender equality, but they were at the forefront of getting the job done, and to get the job done they had to figure out ways around the ban," she said.