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Repeal of women in combat affects South Dakota

SPEARFISH -- The Pentagon's announcement lifting the ban on women in combat units will affect the South Dakota National Guard.

Currently there is one unit open only to men.

The 211th Engineer Company (Sappers), headquartered in Madison with a detachment in DeSmet, is a combat engineer company tasked with the mission to "execute mobility, counter mobility and survivability tasks and to provide general engineer support to a maneuver unit or a support brigade," said Maj. Anthony Deiss, a public affairs officer for the South Dakota Army National Guard.

"In laymen's terms they are in charge of placing or clearing mine fields, demolition operations, field defenses, as well as to operate as infantry as needed."

But South Dakota women have seen their fair share of shots fired in anger already.

Records show that 36 women currently serving in the South Dakota National Guard have earned combat action badges, a token issued to soldiers that have been in combat.

Sgt. 1st Class Kelley Crane is one of them.

In November 2004 she and the members of the 109th Engineer Group were deployed to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. The small compound she called home while deployed had a rocket explode inside.

"I had just got done talking to the maintenance guys and headed back to my hut," Crane recalled. "I was just about to turn in for the night when a rocket hit close."

Initially she thought the explosion she heard and felt was from mine clearing operations occurring nearby. After all, that was a daily occurrence, but then she heard debris landing on the roof of her hut.

"I opened up the door and a huge dust cloud was outside," Crane said. "Then it was apparent what had happened."

During the same 2004 deployment the C-130 plane in which she was riding was fired upon as it was returning to the air base.

But it was even earlier than that when Crane experienced being shot it for the first time.

She is an Operation Desert Storm veteran.

"Back then, we experienced some enemy fire (that came from nowhere) and other dangerous situations," she said. "During that war, there was a clear front-line (or so we thought). In my opinion, it seemed as though the lines were beginning to blur and random, unexpected situations were happening behind the lines.

"I think that was the beginning of where we are now in terms of how we fight."

Now, in unconventional warfare, there are no clearly defined lines. Soldiers may be attacked while on patrol, while returning to their base down a previously cleared road, and even in their bases -- a rising trend of today's war in so-called blue on green attacks.

Crane said she supports the move to allow women in combat roles since many women in the military are already fighting alongside men.

"If I could come in now as a young soldier I would have the opportunity to fly attack helicopters," Crane said. "Women have a lot of potential and some people don't realize that. We have a lot of tough women in the military."

The South Dakota Army National Guard has about 3,200 soldiers and women make up about 500 of that number, Deiss said. In the state's Air Guard there are about 1,000 airmen -- about 180 are female. When the ban was lifted last month, defense leaders ordered quarter-million positions open to service members regardless of gender. South Dakota has been proactive in providing more opportunities for female soldiers, Deiss said.

"Since 2007, the South Dakota National Guard has made great strides in making more opportunities available to women in the organization. With its force restructuring/transformation that began that year, it opened up approximately 800 new positions to women that weren't previously available," Deiss said.

This included women serving at the battery level in the state's 1st Battalion, 147th Field Artillery Brigade (Multiple Launch Rocket System).

The Air Guard's 114th Fighter Wing already had all its positions open to women, he added.

As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, signed an order wiping away generations of limits on women fighting for their country, the military service officials said they would begin a sweeping review of the physical requirements.

Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq,

Afghanistan or neighboring nations in support of those wars. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.

As a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point two years before women were admitted, Dempsey said he has seen the changes over time.