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Military milestone: Outgoing Panetta grants combat roles for women

  • FILE - This Jan. 19, 2013 file photo shows Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaking during a news conference in London. Panetta has removed US military ban on women in combat, opening thousands of front line positions. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

    FILE - This Jan. 19, 2013 file photo shows Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaking during a news conference in London. Panetta has removed US military ban on women in combat, opening thousands of front line positions. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

  • FILE - In a May 9, 2012 file photo, Capt. Sara Rodriguez, 26, of the 101st Airborne Division, carries a litter of sandbags during the Expert Field Medical Badge training at Fort Campbell, Ky. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Kristin M. Hall, File)

    FILE - In a May 9, 2012 file photo, Capt. Sara Rodriguez, 26, of the 101st Airborne Division, carries a litter of sandbags during the Expert Field Medical Badge training at Fort Campbell, Ky. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Kristin M. Hall, File)

  • FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

    FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

  • FILE - This Jan. 19, 2013 file photo shows Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaking during a news conference in London. Panetta has removed US military ban on women in combat, opening thousands of front line positions. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
  • FILE - In a May 9, 2012 file photo, Capt. Sara Rodriguez, 26, of the 101st Airborne Division, carries a litter of sandbags during the Expert Field Medical Badge training at Fort Campbell, Ky. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Kristin M. Hall, File)
  • FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2012 file photo, female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range while testing new body armor in Fort Campbell, Ky., in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to allow women to serve in combat roles, a watershed policy decision that follows years of calls for a fully inclusive military, defense officials said yesterday.

Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, are expected to formally announce the change today, the officials said. The Army, Marines and other services will then develop plans to open jobs in ground combat units, such as the infantry, to women.

The decision comes after a decade during which women – fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – have been pushed closer to the front lines than ever before. It also comes less than a year and half after the formal end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” which banned gay men and women from serving openly.

Panetta, who is expected to step down in coming days, has long said the Pentagon is exploring ways to open more career opportunities for women. The Pentagon announced in February that it would open about 14,000 combat-related positions to female troops. But an estimated 238,000 other positions – about one-fifth of the regular active-duty military – were kept off-limits to women.

Virtually all of those jobs are in the Army and Marine Corps.

Overall, women make up about 14 percent of the active-duty military. According to the Defense Department, 152 female troops have been killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Female veteran groups say that even though the number of women who would pursue combat jobs might be small, having the option is a long overdue step that would bring the United States in line with several of its allies.

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