WASHINGTON — When Army Staff Sgt. Keesha Dentino went on combat patrols in Afghanistan last year, the local women did not at first realize that, draped in all her military gear, she, too, was a woman.
They wanted to touch her dark, waist-length hair, which she keeps in a braid, and hear her voice to make sure that "oh my gosh — she's real."
Then, she said, they were more at ease, and her presence soothed tensions between the Army and the residents.
The Afghan women were also amazed to see an American woman in a role equal, or almost so, to that of a man.
With the word last week that the Pentagon planned to integrate women into combat units, Dentino, 27, and other soldiers with the fabled Old Guard at Fort Myer in Northern Virginia noted that women were all but in such roles in places such as Afghanistan.
Still, Dentino said, she welcomed the chance to do battle officially.
"It's something that I would enjoy," she said Thursday in an interview at the base. "It's something that I would just want to do. I think that I could do it."
Performance in combat is "based on the individual themselves, whether it be a man or a woman," she said. "If their stress level's too high, either a man or woman, they might not do well, or they might rise to the occasion and do well."
"It's dependent upon the person and not necessarily the gender," she said. "So I think that women could do well, potentially, in a firefight."
The Old Guard is known for performing services at Arlington National Cemetery and patrolling the Tomb of the Unknowns. But it is also an infantry regiment that has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan several times.