WASHINGTON -- One was a Black Hawk pilot in Iraq who left the Army after she lost out on the chance to advance to an elite Special Operations helicopter combat unit because it was off limits to her as a woman.
Another was a Marine captain who went on infantry foot patrols in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, but left active duty after she decided that her only future as a woman in the Marines was a lifetime of logistics or support units.
The third, a brigadier general who joined the Marines in a different era, made her peace with reality, stuck it out and rose to become the first woman to command Parris Island, the service's South Carolina training center.
For all three officers, the ban on women in combat was not so much a glass ceiling as a seemingly bulletproof one that limited their career options even as women played an increasingly important role in defending the country.
For them, the significance of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta's decision last week to lift the 1994 ban on women in combat was not just that it gives them the opportunity to fight but also that it offers women a chance to advance in a career in which combat experience remains essential.
"Growing up in America, you don't encounter this kind of discrimination," said the Marine captain, Zoe Bedell, 27, a Princeton graduate, recalling her four years on active duty. Now in the Marine Reserve, she remains a plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Pentagon for its policies on women and no longer envisions a career in the military. "I think my ship has sailed," she said.
Although women often found themselves engaging in ground warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, the military did not officially count their actions as combat, and their battlefield experience went unrecognized. Many left in anger and frustration, or just disappointment at hitting a wall.
"Special Operations is something I would have tried for, and if I had gotten it, I probably would have stayed around longer," said the Black Hawk pilot, Lindsey Melki, 30, a graduate of the United States Military Academy.
The Parris Island commander, Brig. Gen. Lori E. Reynolds, 48, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, chose to accept the strictures and, like other American military women of her generation, rose on a path that was available to her. Although she declined to be interviewed for this article, in an interview in Afghanistan in 2010 she talked about younger military women who were chafing at the combat restrictions.
"Some of these kids, they grew up without barriers," she said. "But from my perspective, we are where we need to be." In an e-mailed statement on Friday, General Reynolds said that she now looked forward to seeing "that change is implemented the right way."
Ms. Melki began a 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2007. She spent much of her time there ferrying infantrymen on combat missions. On more than a few occasions she was a pilot for Special Forces troops -- the Army's Green Berets -- who were hunting down insurgent leaders. Flying with the aid of night-vision goggles, she was given the job of dropping them as swiftly and stealthily as possible into contested areas.
"At night you could see the tracer rounds coming up at you, and that was a reminder of the fighting out there," she said.
When her deployment ended, Ms. Melki looked around for new assignments and found herself dreaming of joining a Special Operations aviation regiment, an elite Army unit known as the Night Stalkers. After all, she had already flown Special Forces on secret missions. "I thought, 'Why can't I do that?' " she said.
The answer: Because of the Pentagon's ban on women in combat, which prohibited women from serving in Special Operations units like the Night Stalkers. So Ms. Melki watched as friends and peers, including pilots she considered no better or more experienced than she was, were accepted in the Special Forces. "I was jealous of them, I was," Ms. Melki said. "Their stories seemed cool."
Instead Ms. Melki headed to Fort Jackson, S.C., where she commanded a basic training company of new recruits. She remained there until 2011, when she left the Army.
Today Ms. Melki is a Tillman Military Scholar at the Stern School of Business at New York University, and her new dream is to work in government to help veterans and their families. But with the announcement of the end of the ban, she cannot help wistfully wondering: What if?
Captain Bedell joined the Marines after graduating from Princeton in 2007 and two years later was in Afghanistan as a logistics officer, a job that largely confined her to a desolate base in Helmand Province, in the south. But in what became the highlight of her tour, in early 2010 Captain Bedell spent three weeks with five other women attached to a Special Forces unit patrolling Marja, an opium poppy breadbasket that had been the site of an American offensive against the Taliban a short time before.
The experience was so powerful -- Captain Bedell worked with the Special Forces to try to gather intelligence and build a relationship with local people -- that on a second deployment to Afghanistan in late 2010 she was excited to command some 40 women in what were called "female engagement teams."
The teams, each made up of two or three Marines who accompanied all-male infantry patrols, frequently came under fire as they moved from village to village in Helmand trying to win over local Afghan women who were culturally off limits to outside men.
The violence made American male commanders, already nervous that they were stretching the rules against women in combat, restrict the women's movements and insist, Captain Bedell said, that the teams have appointments before venturing to remote rural homes. "How do you make an appointment?" Captain Bedell said. "You have to go out on patrol and get to know people."
After the end of her deployment in April 2011, she left active duty. Without officially recognized combat experience, she was never going to advance to lead Marines in battle. "Ultimately, it was only ever going to be a supporting effort," she said. "In an organization whose mission was fighting, I wasn't allowed to fight." She knew that going in, she said, but it was hard to come up against the reality. It was also hard to learn that three years of Arabic in college would not help land her a Marine intelligence job she wanted because it was categorized as a combat position.
Today Captain Bedell is a financial analyst at a small investment bank in New York and is headed to law school in the fall.
General Reynolds, a six-foot college basketball player, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1986, in only the seventh class to admit women. "I was not going to let those guys make me cry," she told The Washington Post in 2011. That seemed her motto as she rose through the ranks.
She led a communications battalion in Falluja, Iraq, during brutal battles there in 2004 and 2005. She chose communications as a specialty, she said in the 2010 interview, because it was a demanding job -- requiring her to build a data, radio and telephone network from scratch -- that was close to the action but still open to women. "I wanted to be out in the field," she said.
By 2010, General Reynolds was in Afghanistan as commanding officer of Camp Leatherneck, a sprawling base of thousands of Marines in Helmand. By 2011, she had become a one-star general running Parris Island. "I am not here by mistake, because it was time to put a girl here," she told reporters when she arrived. "I was the right person for the job."
In the 2010 interview, over dinner in one of the mess halls at Camp Leatherneck, General Reynolds, then a colonel, echoed the Defense Department policy of the time -- as would be demanded of a senior officer -- and said she did not think that women belonged in the infantry.
"I don't think they should close with and destroy the enemy," she said, describing the hunt-and-kill mission of infantrymen. "When you go out and see what the infantry does -- the way they live, the way they train -- it's good that it's all male."
As her e-mail made clear on Friday, she has changed along with the Pentagon. What no one will ever know is whether she would have risen higher than a one-star general in charge of a training mission -- as high as some of the male Marines who are her peers -- if the Pentagon's change had come sooner.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.