COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The first woman to become a general officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard says she has experienced “a period of great change” during her 37 years in uniform, including vast changes for women.

Brig. Gen. Darlene Goff said in a recent interview that women in the armed forces are proving they can move as far as they chose, even into combat roles, because they believe in themselves and their ability to do those jobs.

Now, she said, she thinks the time is right for her to step aside as one of the top leaders of the 11,000-member organization. Goff is one of only 21 female general officers in the National Guard as a whole.

“Other women should be coming up,” the 58-year-old general said, pointing out that the S.C. Army National Guard is getting its first female brigade commander this summer. It has also sent another young female officer to train as the commander of a combat-ready field artillery unit.

“And because of the leadership development program we have in place, I believe it will be long-lasting. It is something that is enduring and will keep progressing,” said Goff.

By January 2016, the military must open all combat jobs to women or explain why any must remain closed. The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in combat jobs in 2012, but gave the military services time to gradually and systematically integrate women into the male-only front-line positions.

Goff is the director of South Carolina’s Army and Air Guard leadership group known as the Joint Staff. In that role, she’s in charge of the Guard’s in-state operations when they are called by the governor to respond to natural or man-made disasters. She formally steps down at the end of next month.

The one-star general said she thinks more women might find they can go far in the military, if they give it a chance.

“I think women say they have to work harder and I think you do have to prove yourself. And if you strive to do that, people will accept you,” she said, adding, “That’s where we see how women today, in combat units, they believe they can do it.”

Goff said she was looking for work after college when she talked with a Guard recruiter in her home town of Ninety Six, South Carolina, in 1977. Her first job was “a telecommunications center operator, a fancy name for a typist,” she said with a laugh.

But being one of only several women in the male-dominated organization was “not easy at all,” she recalled.

“It’s been a period of incredible change in the Guard,” she said.

The one-star general said she decided if she saw others accomplishing things, there was no reason she couldn’t do it as well. During her career, she has worked in communications, maintenance, headquarters, and human resource units. She has been sent to Japan, Okinawa, Panama and Belgium, she said.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the S.C. Army and Air Guard has deployed soldiers and airmen more than 18,000 times out of the state, she said.

Part of the reason women and minorities have advanced in the Guard, she said, is because it has undergone a major evolution through the adoption of specific and rigorous standards for judging who is eligible for promotions.

“It levels the playing field,” she said. “You have to look at the attributes of people regardless of race or gender. And if you do that, women and other minorities will be included because we are being consistent about the talents we are looking for.”

(© Copyright 2015 the Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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