Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester didn't think twice when a group of Iraqi insurgents ambushed her convoy outside Baghdad five years ago. She scrambled to the side of the road, grabbed her rifle and grenades and unleashed an assault to help fend off the attack.
"When we first started taking fire, I just looked to the right and saw seven or eight guys shooting back at us. Muzzle flashes," said Hester, a military police officer with the Kentucky National Guard.
She took down three insurgents before the fight subsided, in a gallant showing that later earned her the Silver Star; the third highest military award for valor in the face of the enemy. She was the first woman to receive the commendation since World War II.
But while thousands of women like Hester face the dangers of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan every day, serving as aviators, military police, intelligence and civil affairs officers, they remain technically barred from infantry units that specialize in close combat with the enemy on the ground.
Critics say the policy creates an unlevel playing field that makes it difficult for women to pursue careers in front-line tactical operations and acquire experience essential for assuming some of the military's top jobs.
Now, that policy could soon come to an end.
The Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a nonpartisan advisory panel created in 2009 to study advancement of women and minorities in the military, is expected to formally recommend as early as Monday that President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates end the restrictions.
"The Commission recommends that DoD and the Services take steps to open all career fields and units to all women who are qualified," commission members wrote in their draft report, due in final form before March 15.
The commission's report will go to Congress and the White House upon its release. But, ultimately, it's up to Gates to decide on a change of policy, because no law exists to exclude women from joining infantry units.
The panel found that allowing women to serve formally in close-combat units would have minimal impact on unit readiness and mission capability, morale or cohesion, and restore a more equitable environment for all service members based on their qualifications.
Advocates for women in the military have hailed the report as a step toward recognition of the contributions women have already made on the front lines.
"As a leader who did missions outside the wire on small teams, I know you want the best people for the job, and that shouldn't be limited by various discriminators like age or race or sex or sexual orientation," said Genevieve Chase, an Army reservist who fought in Afghanistan and founded the group American Women Veterans.
"Women want to achieve and aspire to their own personal level of success whatever that means. In a career in the military, that's a rank of general for some people," she said.
"If there aren't a lot of women generals, if there aren't a lot of places for women to go because opportunities are so limited, then they're going to get out of the military and take their skills and their knowledge to the civilian sector where they'll be well received."
Experts on the nonpartisan commission, made up of active duty and retired military service members, warned the loss of women from the ranks because of limited advancement opportunities could hurt the force overall.