WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat, which will open up hundreds of thousands of additional front-line jobs to them, senior defense officials said Wednesday.
The groundbreaking decision overturns a 1994 Pentagon rule that restricts women from artillery, armor, infantry and other such combat roles, even though in reality women have found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 20,000 have served. As of last year, more than 800 women had been wounded in the two wars and more than 130 had died.
Defense officials offered few details about Panetta’s decision but described it as the beginning of a process to allow the branches of the military to put it into effect. Defense officials said Panetta had made the decision on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Women have long chafed under the combat restrictions and have increasingly pressured the Pentagon to catch up with the reality on the battlefield. The move comes as Panetta is about to step down from his post and would leave him with a substantial legacy after only 18 months on the job.
Panetta’s decision came after he received a Jan. 9 letter from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stated in strong terms that the armed service chiefs all agreed that 𠀜the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service."
In the military, serving in combat positions like the infantry remains crucial to career advancement in the military, and women have long said that by not recognizing their real service the military has unfairly held them back.
It is unclear to what degree Congress will review the decision, although in the past some Republican members of the House have balked at allowing women in combat.
But as of Wednesday afternoon, there appeared to be bipartisan support for the decision on Capitol Hill.
“I support it," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that she was pleased by the decision and that it “reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country."