In a historic announcement yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stood with other military leaders to officially lift the ban on women serving in combat, stating that female soldiers are an “integral part” of the U.S. military and have already proven their ability and willingness to fight during U.S. combat operations over the past decade.
“It’s clear to all of us that women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission of defending the nation,” Panetta said.
This transition opens hundreds of thousands of front-line combat positions, along with elite commando jobs that were formerly off-limits to women. Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey both endorsed the change on January 24, and the White House announced that it also approved the decision.
The groundbreaking move advanced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturn a 1994 ban on women’s integration into ground combat units. Following Panetta’s announcement, the military services have until January 2016 to request special exceptions if they feel that any positions should stay closed to women.
Women already make up 15% of the U.S. Armed Forces, and increasingly found themselves in combat situations during post-9/11 operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While not every American will meet the rigorous qualifications necessary to become a combat soldier, everyone is now entitled the opportunity to prove themselves. According to Panetta, the military chiefs must report back with initial implementation plans no later than May 15.
Panetta noted that American women are “serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield” and have “become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission.”
A handful of front-line military positions may start to incorporate women as early as this year. Evaluations for other (more demanding) positions, such as special operations forces like the Navy SEALS or Army’s Delta Force, will likely take much longer.
The move to make combat positions gender-neutral represents an expansion of the Pentagon’s action nearly a year ago to open over 14,000 combat positions to women, most all of them in the Army. This decision could now open more than a quarter of a million additional jobs (primarily in Army and Marine infantry units) to women.
Senator John McCain of Arizona voiced his support for the decision.
“The fact is that American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces,” he said before Congress. “Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes them a deep debt of gratitude.” The senator went on to advise the military (especially elite special forces units) to maintain its rigorous physical fitness standards.
Over the past decade the contingencies of war propelled many women into new jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers. These were sometimes attached – although not formally assigned — to units fighting on the front lines. Therefore, many see the lifted ban as merely a way of making official what has already been a practice in the field.
As President Obama moves into his second term, Panetta will be stepping down as Secretary of Defense, with Senator Charles Hagel nominated as his replacement.
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