Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta will remove the military's ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.
The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.
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"After a decade of critical military service in hostile environments, women have demonstrated a wide range of capabilities in combat operations and we welcome this review," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs fighting in Iraq, called the “long overdue.”
“This is a win for our nation," Duckworth, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. told Politico. "This is a win for our military — that the talents of all of these women are going to be able to be used by our nation to protect and defend this great democracy.”
A senior military official says the services will develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions. Some jobs may open as this year. Assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force, may take longer.
The official told the Associated Press that military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15. The announcement on Panetta's decision is not expected until Thursday, so the official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Panetta's move expands the Pentagon's action nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the U.S. Army. This decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.
In recent years the necessities of war propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached — but not formally assigned — to units on the front lines.
Women comprise 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel.
The news came as complete surprise, with no leaks to the media on a day when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's riveting testimony on the Benghazi killings of a U.S. ambassador and three Americans consumed much attention.
But lawmakers, conservative activists and former military leaders were quick to react.
"The focus of our military needs to be maximizing combat effectiveness," said U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
"The question here is whether this change will actually make our military better at operating in combat and killing the enemy, since that will be their job too. What needs to be explained is how this decision, when all is said and done, increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes -- which is what this looks like," Hunter said.
"Lifting the ban is contrary to law and the wishes of the American people," said Phyllis Schlafly
, the conservative activist and constitutional lawyer. "It is an embarrassment to the country."
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Paul E. Vallely tells Newsmax that physical limitations prevent women from serving is special combat forces, including the Navy SEALs.
“There are two ways to look at it,” Vallely said. “Women are already in combat zones — flying in helicopters, providing military intelligence, and in support units in Afghanistan.
“But I don’t think they should be in Special Forces or infantry units or deployed, in a conventional way, as part of special operations forces like Navy SEALs.”
“The upper-body strength that it takes to carry the weapons and gear — and especially on long hikes they’d have” prevents them from serving these operations effectively, said Vallely, who retired from the Army in 1993 as Deputy Commanding General, Pacific. “It’s been proven that women just don’t develop that upper-body strength.”
But others argue the U.S. isn't fighting trench warfare as it did in World War II. It's fighting insurgencies. As the Center for American Progress argued last month, "Policies designed to keep servicewomen from the frontlines of battle cannot be enforced where frontlines do not exist."
More than 130 women have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Associated Press. In all, about 2 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women. Some 280,000 women have been deployed to the war zones over the past decade, about 12 percent of the U.S. total.
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Defense officials noted that 10 years of combat had made it clear that some of the military's gender-based restrictions were obsolete because the battlefields faced by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had no clear front lines and no obvious ways to limit exposure to the fighting.
"This policy has become irrelevant given the modern battlespace with its nonlinear boundaries," the Defense Department said in a report to Congress.
Of the more than 200,000 women serving as active duty members of the military, about 37,000 are officers.
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