Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday that the U.S. military is lifting a ban on female service members in combat roles.
In a news conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Panetta announced the rescission the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule for women and revealed plans to remove gender-based barriers to service.
"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.
He added, "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."
A Defense Department statement noted that women make up approximately 15 percent, or nearly 202,400, of the U.S. military's 1.4 million active personnel, with more than 280,000 women deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The decision follows an extensive review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who unanimously agreed to recommend lifting the ban.
The Defense Department said the move builds on a February 2012 decision to open more than 14,000 additional positions to women by rescinding the co-location restriction and allowing women to be assigned to select positions in ground combat units at the battalion level.
"The Joint Chiefs share 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."
Panetta directed the military departments to submit detailed plans for the implementation of the change by May 15, 2013, with the process expected to be complete by January 1, 2016.
President Barack Obama has nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed Panetta, who is stepping down after taking over the Defense Department in July of 2011. Panetta previously served as Director of the CIA.
Obama released a statement expressing strong support for the decision, which he said will "strengthen our military, enhance our readiness, and be another step toward fulfilling our nation's founding ideals of fairness and equality."
He added, "Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love."
Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam veteran and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also expressed support for Panetta's decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat.
"The fact is that American women are already serving in harm's way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces," McCain said. "Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes them a deep debt of gratitude."
He added, "As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world - particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units."
Meanwhile, some conservative groups have expressed concerns about the decision, citing worries about women's ability to deal with the physical demands of combat roles and suggesting that female prisoners of war would likely be subject to sexual assault in certain foreign countries.
by RTT Staff Writer
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