The Department of Defense on Wednesday made the historic decision to allow women to serve in combat roles while serving in the military.
The move, which overturns a 1994 Pentagon policy that prohibited women from serving in small ground-combat roles, means that hundreds of thousands of direct combat and special operations positions in the U.S. military would be available for women.
Officials told media outlets that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, will make a formal announcement on Thursday.
“I can confirm media reports that the secretary and the chairman are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military,” a senior Pentagon official was quoted by ABC News as saying.
In the past several years the Pentagon has allowed women to move closer to the front-lines of combat. In February 2012, Panetta announced that 14,000 combat-related positions would be open for women. However, around 240,000 positions remained closed to them. Most of the closed positions are in the Army and Marine Corps, reported The Washington Post.
“The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” Dempsey wrote in a letter to Panetta dated Jan. 9 according to ABC.
Some of those jobs might be open to women by the end of 2013, an official told The Associated Press. Special operations forces like the Navy SEALS and the Army’s Delta Force may take longer. Each branch of the services has until May to lay out a plan for implementation. They must fully implement the new rules by 2016.
According to the Pentagon official, the move is widely supported within the services. Congress will have 30 days to consider the policy change before it goes into effect.
Chairman of the Armed Services Committee Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, said in a statement, “I support it. It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations.”
Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington called the move a “historic step for equality.”
“From the streets of Iraqi cities, to rural villages in Afghanistan, time and again women have proven capable of serving honorably and bravely,” Murray said in a statement.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and Iraq war veteran, criticized the announcement, saying, “The question you’ve got to ask yourself every single time you make a change like this is: Does it increase the combat effectiveness of the military? I think the answer is no,” Hunter said according to ArmyTimes.
The Obama administration has been supportive of increasing gender equality within the armed services.
Approximately 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel are women. Over 20,000 women served in Afghanistan or Iraq according to the 2012 Congressional Research Service report, “Women in Combat.”
“On numerous occasions women have been recognized for their heroism, two earning Silver Star medals. This has resulted in a renewed interest in Congress, the Administration, and beyond in reviewing and possibly refining or redefining the role of women in the military,” the report stated.
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