Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta plans to lift the military ban on women serving in combat, which will open approximately 237,000 front-line positions to servicewomen. Panetta's decision overturns a 1994 ruling that excluded women from assignment to units below the brigade level if they would be engaging in direct combat.
Recommended by the Joint Chief of Staffs, Panetta's decision gives military services until January of 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.
After more than a decade at war, women will now be allowed positions in ground combat units at the battalion level. "We are moving in the direction of women as infantry soldiers," one senior defense official said. Women comprise 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel.
Armed Services Chair Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., issued a statement today saying he supported Secretary Panetta's decision: "It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations."
Senator Patty Murray, member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, also applauded the move. "This is an historic step for equality and for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation. From the streets of Iraqi cities to rural villages in Afghanistan, time and again women have proven capable of serving honorably and bravely. In fact, it's important to remember that in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male servicemembers."
Last year, four servicewomen filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon and Leon Panetta over the direct ground combat exclusion policy, claiming that women were already serving in combat roles but did not receive any recognition for their service. Panetta also announced nearly a year ago that the military would open about 14,500 combat positions to women and lifted a rule that prohibited women from living with combat units.
A senior military official said the change will not go into effect immediately and that they will start developing procedures for women to apply to combat units. Some jobs may open as soon as this year but positions within special operations forces, including Navy SEALS and the Arm Ranger billets, may take longer. The official said the military chiefs will report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.
Panetta is expected to make the announcement along with the Joint Chief of Staffs Chairman on Thursday.