U.S. Army Maj. Maya Best of the First Army talks about her service during two deployments in Iraq. During her second deployment in 2007, Best was in full combat gear while in the line of fire from snipers while setting up antennas on the tops of buildings. (Brian Wellner/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Brian Wellner

U.S. Army Maj. Maya Best didn’t wait for the Pentagon’s OK this week to enter combat zones in Iraq. She was there in 2007. The Florida native who lives in Milan said that as a battalion signal officer, she often went into the line of sniper fire to set up antennas to assist air missions.

One assignment had her crawling on the roof of a Baghdad high-rise after dark. If she stood up, she could have been shot, as snipers targeted the building near Camp Loyalty.

“It shakes you up pretty good when tracers and rounds are going off above your head,” Best said.

The assignments required her to don full combat gear, including a Kevlar vest, eye protection and 210 rounds of ammunition, or what Best called “full battle rattle.”

She shared her wartime experiences Thursday at First Army headquarters on Arsenal Island as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the

military will lift its ban on women serving in combat roles.

Maj. Gen. Michael Smith, First Army deputy commanding general for support, said the decision opens 237,000 positions to women, including posts on the front line.

“It’s a great day for the Army,” he said.

He said wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given the military “ample evidence” over 10 years that women can do the jobs men can.

“Women have been in direct action combat,” he said. “They’ve given their lives and served honorably.”

In 10 years, 200,000 women have served in the military, he said, adding women currently make up 14 percent of the Army.

Of the 26 members of the armed forces from the Quad-Cities who have died in the line of duty since 2003, two were women. U.S. Army Pfc. Katie M. Soenksen, 19, of Davenport, died May 2, 2007, in Baghdad of wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near her vehicle. Sgt. Jessica M. Housby of Rock Island was killed Feb. 9, 2005. She served with the 1644th Transportation Unit, Illinois National Guard, Rock Falls.

Col. Greg Hapgood, public relations officer for the Iowa National Guard, said the change will have “minimal impact” on Guard operations because men and women have been in combat with one another since 2003.

“In today’s combat, there really are no front lines. Anyone or any unit is a target. We have women in units as medics and administrative roles that are targets not limited by geography,” he said. “Today’s announcement won’t change our operational footprint.”

About 1,300 of the Guard’s 7,300 members are women.

Hapgood said the change likely will give females in the Guard more opportunities to serve in a variety of roles.

Smith said all branches of the military will review how the decision will affect training and other areas and report back to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in May. He said the Army has yet to conduct a detailed review of its training procedures.

Best said she has come across female soldiers who are “tough as nails.”

“They can go toe to toe with the infantry guys any day,” she said. “If a female wants to meet the Army’s highest standards, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be allowed.

“This is the Army. It’s what we do. We’re trained to defend our country. Male and female, we work as a team to keep our buddy safe and get home safely.”

Smith said the Army seeks the best qualified and now women can compete for every position.

“It’ll become a very competitive place,” he said.

(Mike Wiser contributed to this story.)