02/21/2013 at 10:00 AM EST
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."