By Michael E. Ruane
The Washington Post
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.
Dentino, an explosives-detection dog handler with the military police at Fort Myer, served for nine months in Afghanistan as a member of a cultural support team, where she would go along on combat patrols to help interact with residents.
She returned in November.
Before that, she served two tours in Iraq, as a gunner and then as a team leader on convoys. "Every deployment, I've done combat missions," said the Homestead, Fla., native.
"The whole females in combat is not a new thing," she said. "I think people are just not aware that there are women out there who have done it."
In Afghanistan, local women were "pleasantly surprised to find [American] women in these roles," she said. "A lot of times, they assume you're a male, because of all your gear."
"Then when you actually show that you're a woman, they're a lot more receptive to you," she said. "They're a lot more willing to converse with you.
"They usually want to touch me," she said. "They want to know a lot about me. They want to verify that I'm a woman. . . . And so it's encouraged to kind of wear your hair down, and let them know."
The women also "want to know why it is that I'm able to be around other men," she said. "They're restricted in that culture. To see a woman out there kind of being treated equally by men is unheard of to them. So they're very intrigued by that."
As fluid as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could be, there remains a difference between direct combat and noncombat roles, she said.
"Military police, you're kind of out there," she said. "You don't need an escort to leave the gates. . . . Yeah, you'll get into some firefights. You'll have IEDs, and stuff like that. But . . . your jobs are different" from combat assignments.
"Your job isn't really to be the front lines, even though it's kind of changed since Afghanistan. There really isn't a front line. The road pretty much is the front lines, when you're out there driving.
"But when you're with units that are actually getting into combat, it's a totally different world. . . . What's different is, you're not going into close-quarter combat. . . . You're not going into a home and looking through rooms looking for targeted individuals. You're not doing that as a female."
Capt. Niki Marin, 26, of Naples, Fla., a logistician with the Old Guard who was recently deployed to Afghanistan for a year, expressed caution about the Pentagon's changes.
"It's still in the beginning stages," she said of the decision Thursday.
"It's a step in the right direction," she said. "It's definitely something that was a long time coming, and definitely something that's essential for our military to be successful. . . . We still have a long way to go."
Asked whether she felt that she had been barred from something before the announcement, she said, "No, I did not, necessarily."
Capt. Barron Moffitt, 31, of Corpus Christi, Tex., a company commander who served two tours in Iraq, said of the decision: "It just affords more members of the military more options. . . . As long as standards stay the same in those units, then there shouldn't be an issue."
Last week, all three soldiers were involved in presidential inauguration duty, although Dentino had an important, gender-specific task.
At the Commander in Chief's Ball, "I danced with the vice president of the United States," she said, laughing. Representing the Army, she was the service member selected to dance with Vice President Joe Biden, who she said was "awesome."