On January 24, the Pentagon signed an order opening all ground-combat military positions to women. The order lifts a 1994 rule, which stated that women could not be assigned to units in direct ground combat.
Women currently make up about 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel. They have totaled more than 10% of those sent to war zones. The historic change will open up thousands of jobs to women serving overseas. Ultimately, women could even be allowed to serve in special-operations units, including the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEALs.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the change is to ensure that the best qualified and most capable service members, regardless of gender, are selected for combat. "Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier," Panetta said. "But everyone is entitled to a chance."
President Barack Obama praised the decision. "This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military," Obama said in a statement released following the announcement.
On the Front Lines
Before the new order, women in combat zones could only serve in support roles, including as doctors or police. They could also do clerical work, mechanical work and photo analysis, among other important jobs. In 1979, enlistment qualifications became the same for men and women, but women were still prohibited from direct combat assignments.
Many military experts say the new order acknowledges that women have recently had a stronger presence in dangerous war areas. More than 280,000 served in combat zones during the last two U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, women will officially have the chance to fight on the front lines and take on top military positions.
"Not every woman makes a good soldier, but not every man makes a good soldier," said U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, of California. "We’re not asking that standards be lowered."
The military is reviewing the physical and other standards required for all direct combat fields, a long and challenging process. The review will be completed by January 1, 2016.
"We are going to make sure that we have the right standards for the right jobs that maintain the readiness of the force," says Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin Dempsey.
The new order could open more than 230,000 jobs to women. Military services say that while the changes will not happen overnight, some jobs may open as soon as this year.