I've been taking a break from opining in "Don't Get Me Started" because, after five years, I feel like I've discussed everything under the sun. I even bantered about women in combat a year ago, long before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the 1994 ban on women serving in combat jobs.

Been there, done that. Been there, done that, too.

But when freelance columnist Greg Maresca challenged me to a pro/con opinion piece on women serving in combat jobs, I couldn't resist. But first, a clarification: lifting the ban doesn't "allow" women in the combat zone or force them into combat jobs, even if they must register with Selective Service. It merely removes gender classification when a person choses a military occupational specialty (MOS). Also, it doesn't open elite units such as Navy SEALS and Army Rangers, which will likely remain male-only.

So here's why I believe Panetta is right:

We're already on the battlefield. Opening combat jobs allows women to get the training that will save not only their lives but the lives of those around them. Women in combat jobs will have access to more weapons and survival training, field exercises and skills practice, which will not only help her do a better job, it will help her survive should she find herself at a disadvantage in enemy territory and/or taken prisoner. Or as Gen. George S. Patton said, "A pint of sweat can save a gallon of blood."

It equalizes standards and improves mutual respect. There's concern that sharing latrines, sleeping quarters and shower rooms will cause trouble, but there's one factor critics forget: The military is built on camaraderie; it's your obligation to do what's right to help fellow troops. Besides, I've shared quarters with men and women alike, and it wasn't salacious at all. Why should it be? Men and women operate in the same spaces all the time. Believe it or not, people are capable of courtesy, even in war.

I'm aware some men in combat arms are against lifting the ban and it will take time to adjust to such a huge change. But challenging doesn't mean impossible.

Besides, it's worked before. The military was integrated in 1948, but blacks' service has a lot of parallels to women's service. They, too, served in the days of our country's infancy and in every conflict since. Today, there's no question if a black man should serve in all facets of the military, despite unequal treatment before. When women in combat jobs become normal, no one will question it, and it will only serve to strengthen our military, just like the 17 percent of troops who are black.

There's no plan for "gender norming." Any woman who wants to join the infantry will have to meet the standards already in place. If she can't, she's going home, just like the guys who can't make it.

Physical standards are a serious issue, and the various branches have time to figure out how they're going to make it all work. I believe women are physically, mentally and emotionally capable of doing well in combat jobs. I also believe statistics determined by a plethora of studies, including "Gender Differences in Physical Fitness of Military Recruits During Army Basic Training" by U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, which found "a significant gap in physical fitness between males and females still existed after (basic training)," but noted in several sections that this gap can be diminished with further investigation on the institute's part and more training on the recruits' part.

So let's make it happen. Improve training and embrace the women who will succeed.

It's time for a fitness standard overhaul, anyway.

Currently, the Army's physical fitness standards expect the same from an 18-year-old woman as a 42-year-old man (42 is the age limit for enlistment). The APFT standards say a 42-year-old man must do 30 pushups, 32 situps and run two miles in 18 minutes, 42 seconds to pass. Compare that to an 18-year-old woman, who must do 19 pushups, 53 situps and run two miles in 18 minutes and 54 seconds to pass. Hardly any difference, yet the 42-year-old man can join the infantry.

And he has. In 2006, Jeffery Williamson, then 41, joined the Army and not only made it through infantry training, he became a scout and served with 101st Airborne Division, according to a 2010 article in the Virginian-Pilot. If a 41-year-old man can make it through infantry training and show the teenagers how it's done, then a woman shouldn't be banned simply because she's a woman.

Lifting the ban will help men act like men. The first thing people think about when they think of women in combat is sex, as if these women are prostitutes instead of troops. The reality, however, is that men are expected to treat women in combat like brothers in arms, not whores, and there are rules in place to that effect, although they could be enforced better. What better way to inspire men to be manly than to expect them to act like real men around everyone?

Too many women are abused. It's not physical abuse that keeps a person down, it's mental abuse: "You're not good enough. You're weak. You're stupid. You don't have what it takes." By not opening combat jobs to women, the U.S. military is subliminally agreeing with such asinine statements, which is not honorable. It lacks integrity and fails to serve and protect all Americans.

Lifting the ban supports teamwork, the basis of every military action. When one person (a woman) succeeds in her military role, her success helps everyone move forward. Holding one person back because of gender simply holds back the entire group.

The most important reason women should serve in combat jobs, however, is leadership. The secretary of defense gave a command, and it's the obligation of every service member to follow orders and of every American to support them while they do so.

(Nicolov is an assistant editor at The News-Item. Contact her at julie_n@newsitem.com)