WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon E. 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.
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 in other roles when commanders attached their units to combat battalions. They didn’t receive combat decorations or other special recognition, however.
The move will also 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.