WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is ending the ban on women serving in combat in the U.S. military, potentially opening up more than 200,000 positions on the front lines and possibly also jobs with elite commando units. Pentagon officials said Wednesday that Panetta gave the armed services until 2016 to ask for special waivers if they believe any positions should remain closed to women.
Although women have never been assigned to American front-line fighting units, the decision specifically overturns a 1994 rule that barred women from serving with smaller ground combat units.
Panetta's decision was seen as a recognition of women's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the demand for troops, women often found themselves on the front lines serving as drivers, medics, mechanics and other roles when commanders attached their units to combat battalions. They didn't receive combat decorations or other special recognition, however.
The move also will help women climb the military ranks. Female service members have struggled to gain promotions in part because of their lack of combat experience; the Pentagon's first four-star female general, Ann Dunwoody, wasn't promoted until 2008.
The Pentagon took an initial step last February when it opened 14,000 combat-related jobs, mostly in the Army, to female service members. The new policy would open up to women more than 200,000 combat jobs, including in Army and Marine infantry units.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee and founder of the Women in the Military Caucus, praised Panetta's decision. He is expected to step down next month and a Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled next week for Chuck Hagel, who President Barack Obama has nominated as the next Pentagon chief.
"I have been a firm believer in removing the archaic combat exclusion policy for many years," Sanchez said in a statement. "I am happy to hear the secretary will be making significant changes as part of an effort to expand opportunities for women in the military."