Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey sign orders that will lift the ban on women in combat positions within the U.S. military. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday that the military will lift its ban on women serving in combat roles, which will open about 230,000 posts, including those on the front lines.
"Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military's mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles," Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference. "The department's goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."
Military service chiefs unanimously support the change, which reflects the realities of the modern military, said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"The Joint Chiefs share a common cause on the need to start doing this now and to doing this right," Dempsey said. "We are committed to a purposeful and principled approach."
President Obama said Thursday he supported Panetta's decision.
"Earlier today I called Secretary of Defense Panetta to express my strong support for this decision, which will strengthen our military, enhance our readiness, and be another step toward fulfilling our nation's founding ideals of fairness and equality," Obama said in a prepared statement.
"As Commander in Chief, I am absolutely confident that-as with the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'-the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world," Obama said.
Pentagon policy restricting women from serving in combat on the ground was modified in 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service. Women cannot be assigned below the brigade level -- a unit of about 3,500 troops -- to fight on the ground. Effectively, that has barred women from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers and special operations units of battalion size -- about 700 troops -- or lower.
The services will have until January 2016 to implement the changes. Last year, Panetta opened up an additional 15,000 jobs to women. He ordered the remaining exclusions lifted because he had been committed to doing so since taking office.
Panetta said he and the service chiefs have been working on the plan for more than a year.
The move comes as Panetta prepares to leave office. President Obama has nominated Republican former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam combat veteran, to take his place.