A female Marine goes through an obstacle course, one of the tasks of the combat endurance test. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has lifted the military's ban on women serving in combat, a move that will allow women into hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando units, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday.
Women currently serve in a number of combat positions, including piloting warplanes or serving on ships in combat areas. Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 292,000 women have served in those combat zones out of a total of almost 2.5 million, Pentagon records show. In both wars, 152 women have died from combat or noncombat causes, records show, and 958 have been wounded in action.
The move will be announced officially Thursday afternoon by Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the official, who spoke anonymously because Panetta had not yet made the announcement.
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, the official said. 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, the official said.
The chiefs of the services unanimously support the change in policy, the defense official said.
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.
The policy change requires notifying Congress, which must have 30 days to consider it.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and Iraq war veteran, criticized the announcement, saying "it is totally out of left field. Completely."
"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.
Military services may seek special exceptions to the new policy if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.
The official said the services will develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions. Some jobs may open as soon as this year. Assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force, may take longer.
Each service will be charged with developing policies to integrate women into every military job. For instance, the defense official said, it's likely the Army will establish a set of physical requirements for infantry soldiers. The candidate, man or woman, will have to lift a certain amount of weight in order to qualify. The standards will be gender neutral.
The official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.
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 make up 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel.
Changing the policy will cause few problems, the official said. A few troops won't like it, the official said, but most have seen women deployed and accept it already. It's likely to have the same effect as the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve but required them to hide their sexuality.
"The effect of that?" the official said. "A big zero."
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