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Report: Growing number of military women see combat, serve in leadership roles

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US Marine Corporal Jessica L. Williams (L) and Lance Corporal Shawnee Redbear of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Golf Company patrol in Basabad, Helmand Province, on March 9, 2011. The US Marines deployed about 40 Female Marines in Helmand province and Nimruz for the Female Engagement Team (FET) programme to interact with Afghan civilians, specifically women and children.

Women in the U.S. military are more likely than ever to see combat, says a study released Thursday.

Though men continue to make up the bulk of the fighting force, the proportion of women in the military is soaring, says the Pew Research study, which also found a greater share of women than men in the military are black and a smaller share of females are married compared to their male counterparts.

Female veterans are also more apt to be critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than male veterans, the study found.

Since 1973, when the U.S. ended the draft and established an all-volunteer force, the proportion of women in the military has soared. The ranks of enlisted females have increased from 2 percent to 14 percent, and the share of female officers has quadrupled, from 4 percent to 16 percent, according to the Pew study, "Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile." 

"The presence of women is felt now more than in any other previous era," said Kim Parker, researcher and co-author of the report. "And what we see is that it’s not just in the enlisted ranks, but there are many more women in leadership role. The military has become a place of opportunity for both racial minorities as well as for women to take on leadership roles."

Women are still less likely than men to go to combat, but their exposure to battle has increased because of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a policy change in the 1990s that allowed women to serve in a greater variety of combat-related roles, such as flying in combat aircraft and serving on combat ships. Only 7 percent of women service members before 1990 had served in combat zones, according to the study, while after 1990 that proportion rose to 25 percent.

"The nature of the wars, where the battle lines are often uncertain, has exposed more women to combat," Parker said. "Even though they’re not the same roles as men. And women are reporting some of the same emotional effects of combat, like PTS (post-traumatic stress)."

More women may see combat in the future. The Pentagon is considering a recommendation by an advisory panel commissioned by Congress that recommends that the military do away with a policy banning women from serving in combat units. That policy is under department review and when complete will be delivered to Congress, Cynthia O. Smith, Department of Defense spokeswoman, told msnbc.com.

In the meantime, "Women will continue to be assigned to units and positions that may necessitate combat actions within the scope of their restricted positioning -- situations for which they are fully trained and equipped to respond," Smith said.

According to the Washington Post, 138 women have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite their expansion of roles, active-duty women are more heavily concentrated in administrative and medical roles than men. The study found 30 percent of active-duty women are administrators, but only 12 percent of active-duty men serve in that capacity.

Female veterans, it turns out, are also more critical than their male counterparts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pew study, which found 63 percent say the Iraq war was not worth fighting (men: 47 percent) and 54 percent say Afghanistan has not been worth it (men: 39 percent). Surveys of the general public have shown no significant differences by gender in the share of people who say the post-9/11 wars were not worth fighting.

And women are also equally likey to have had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences as men -- 47 percent of women, as opposed to 42 percent of men.

Still, women and men overwhelmingly say their military experience was positive, and 78 percent of women (82 percent, men) say they would advise a young person close to them to join the military.

The Pew report draws on two Pentagon studies on overall trends in military participation, as well as demographic and occupational profiles of male and female military personnel. It also draws on data from two surveys of military veterans: a Pew Research Center survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,853 veterans conducted July 28-Sept. 4, 2011, as well as a larger July 2010 Current Population Survey of veterans.