* Servicewomen say they already serve in combat zones
* Without combat ribbons, their careers are stunted
* Critics say "social experiment" could compromise military
By Jane Sutton
Jan 23 (Reuters) - A Pentagon decision to lift a ban on women in front-line combat roles will remove an obstacle that stymied women's careers but had little meaning on modern battlefields with no clear front lines, U.S. military women said on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to formally announce on Thursday that he will lift the policy that excluded women from units whose main job is to engage in combat, U.S. defense officials said.
"Everyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is in combat by the very nature of those conflicts," said Peggy Reiber, who retired from the Marine Corps 16 years ago as a first sergeant and lives in a San Diego suburb.
"Women have certainly fought equally and died equally, it's time we were recognized equally."
The move, which could open thousands of fighting jobs to female service members for the first time, knocks down another societal barrier in the U.S. armed forces after the Pentagon in 2011 scrapped its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
"I feel like it's beyond time," said Staff Sergeant Tiffany Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, describing the move as an overdue recognition that women already serve in combat.
But not all were pleased by the decision. The conservative Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee complained the move could detract from the military's role in protecting the country.
"Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness," the group's president, Penny Nance, said.
Defense officials said the decision to end the ban was made by Panetta, and that individual military services would have until 2016 to seek exemptions if they believe any combat roles should remain closed to women.
Women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq during the last dozen years have accompanied Marines on house raids so they could conduct weapons searches on Muslim women captives who could not be frisked by men. They drive trucks in supply convoys and pilot low-flying cargo planes, dangerous jobs that make them a target.
"They're prime targets because people want the supplies and want to eliminate the supply line," said Suzanne Lachelier, a Navy reserve commander who has served on active duty, though not in combat zones.
"Women are already at risk anyway, so the combat distinction is false at this point," said Lachelier, a Navy lawyer whose work has taken her to Sudan and Yemen.
Women's combat roles were not recognized and the men they served alongside got the combat ribbons and ensuing promotions, several military women said.
"I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches," said Anu Bhagwati, 37, a Marine captain who said she left the service in 2004 in large part because of the combat exclusion policy.
Bhagwati is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, one of the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Panetta in November, claiming the ban was unconstitutional because it discriminated against women.
"There are many incredibly talented, gifted, enthusiastic, hard-charging Marines that I knew who left the Marine Corps because of combat exclusion policy," said Bhagwati, who lives in New York City.
She said that under Panetta, the military had made great progress in fighting discrimination and harassment of women. She called the move "a historic moment" that she hadn't expected to come so soon.
Newly elected Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard, an Army captain in the Hawaii National Guard who was twice deployed to the Middle East, said American female service members have contributed on the battlefield as far back as the U.S. Civil War, when some disguised themselves as men.
"It is crucial that we shed light on the great value and opportunities that these women bring," Gabbard said.
Several military women said they had no doubts women could meet the physical requirements for combat.
"There are some men that aren't in shape ... It's just a matter of training," said Saki Mines, a 29-year-old Army National Guard pilot who was twice deployed to Iraq and is preparing for duty in Egypt but who said her application to become a pilot with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment was rejected because of her gender.
"Everybody knows combat infantry troops are for men only. The other jobs, I don't think most people were aware of the (ban)," Mines said, adding the move to lift the ban was "great." (Reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami; Additional reporting by Rebecca Rose in Killeen, Texas; Marty Graham in San Diego; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Eric Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)