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Panetta to end ban on women in combat

Capt. Sara Rodriguez of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., in May 2012.
Capt. Sara Rodriguez of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., in May 2012.Associated Press

The issue of women military personnel serving in combat roles has been debated for quite a while, but today, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appears to have taken an enormous step towards bringing the discussion to an end.

Senior U. S. defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military's ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

The decision comes about two months after the ACLU and four servicewomen filed a federal suit over the existing combat-exclusion policy. As NPR reported, "Women, the lawsuit claimed, were already serving in combat roles, but were not receiving recognition for it. Last year, the military opened 14,500 positions to women and lifted a rule that prohibited women from living with combat units."

While the issue of special exceptions still needs a resolution, today's announcement obviously addresses the lawsuit, while ending the 1994 ban.

What's more, stepping back to look at this in the larger context, the dramatic changes to and modernization of the U.S. military in recent years has been nothing short of remarkable.

Update: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, released the following statement on Panetta's decision: "This is an historic step for equality and for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation. From the streets of Iraqi cities to rural villages in Afghanistan, time and again women have proven capable of serving honorably and bravely. In fact, it's important to remember that in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male servicemembers. I commend Secretary Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their decision and look forward to working with them on quickly implementing the end of this ban."