From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Ten members of the Quick Reaction Force patrol a remote wooded village. Suddenly enemy machine-gun fire bursts from the trees. A man cries out, "I'm hit!" As the squad takes cover, a lone warrior dashes back to the fight zone to drag the wounded man from harm's way. Had this been war and not a training scenario at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Amanda Rutledge would likely have earned a commendation for valor. With 35 lbs. of gear on her back, the only female trainee in a class of 43 at the Navy's Riverine Combat Skills course proved that she could get a much larger combatant to safety.

"I think I won them over," says Rutledge, 23, who is among the first women training for combat since the Jan. 24 Pentagon decision to open combat roles to them. "When I heard about it, I thought, 'I can do this!'" says Rutledge, a former art student from Mentor, Ohio, who enlisted in 2010 and was recently promoted to Gunner's Mate 2. While the new policy has critics-Center for Military Readiness President Elaine Donnelly calls it "irresponsible ... physical strength is a factor"-for the 202,400 women currently serving, the move "reflects the reality on the ground," says Becky Halstead, retired Army brigadier general. Until women make up greater numbers in these programs, "I'm odd woman out," says Rutledge. "I want to show that if I can do it, others can."

Overcoming Obstacles

Regardless of gender, everyone is expected to meet or exceed requirements that may include: 78 curl-ups in 2 minutes; 33 push-ups in 2 minutes and a 13:30 time on the 1.5-mile run with pack. Powering through the obstacle course, Rutledge struggles, like some others in her squad, with one bar and bangs out the 20 push-ups required as an alternate. Still, she refuses to move on, trying the bar repeatedly until a member of her squad lifts her. Rutledge later aids sailors having trouble cleaning their weapons, so they pass inspection. "It's all about teamwork," says supervisor Matt Phelps.

Sister in the Band of Brothers

Some guys joke with Rutledge about "putting on makeup" when she applies her camo paint, but simulated warfare is serious. "The entire city is a kill zone," warns instructor Matt Phelps. Rutledge, a 5'3" history buff who had never fired a gun before enlisting, asks a lot of questions about improvised explosives, a common threat in Afghanistan. Then the physical battle begins: Each person carries 35 lbs. of flak gear and runs three miles in boots. When a team member's weapon jams, Rutledge helps to clear it. "She takes the initiative," Phelps says. "She is unafraid."

Team Building

Riverine has made some allowances for its female trainees: an "F" taped on a latrine door, and separate sleeping quarters. "I get my own room, so that's cool," Rutledge allows. "I'd rather be with the team." Bonding is essential: She holds her own in profanity-riddled debates over favorite war films (hers is Saving Private Ryan) and in the ribbing of a sailor who moves so slowly his nickname is "Grandma." She and partner William Nalley, 25, get on well, digging trenches and trading off watch and sleep shifts. During one mission he assigns her the navigator post and says, "I trust you."

Graduation Ceremony

"She is right there at the top of her class academically and physically," says Phelps of Rutledge (on Feb. 8 after completing training). By the last day, says Rutledge, who is now stationed in Virginia Beach, Va., "I don't think of myself as being the only female. We're all one team."