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US military opens door to women in ground combat

Women soldiers from the US 1st Cavalry patrol in Baghdad's al-Jihad quarter on March 21, 2004
Women soldiers from the US 1st Cavalry patrol in Baghdad's al-Jihad quarter on March 21, 2004. The US military officially dropped its ban on women serving in ground combat Thursday after a policy review by top commanders, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sa

Ushering in a new era for the US military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday officially ended a ban on women serving in ground combat, saying female troops had proven their courage in a decade of war.

The decision reflected changed realities on the battlefield, Pentagon officials said, as female soldiers already have been fighting and dying in conflicts that lacked clear frontlines.

"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 in a statement.

"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."

The Pentagon chief announced the decision after a review by chiefs of all the armed services who endorsed a gradual change that would be phased in over the next three years.

The joint chiefs "unanimously concluded that now is the time to move forward with the full intent to integrate women into occupational fields to the maximum extent possible," he said.

Under the decision, the armed services will have until January 2016 to carry out the changes. Military departments would have to submit detailed plans on implementing the order by May 15, 2013, Panetta said.

The move highlighted evolving social attitudes and marked yet another sweeping change for the American military under President Barack Obama, who led a drive to end a prohibition on openly gay troops.

A senior defense official said the change would be incremental, to allow each service to ensure a smooth transition.

"With a change of this magnitude, it may take some time," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

An Afghan woman walks in front of US Marine servicewomen near a checkpoint in Basabad on March 9, 2011
An Afghan woman walks in front of US Marine servicewomen from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Golf Company near a checkpoint in Basabad, Helmand Province, on March 9, 2011.

Any added costs for accommodation or other changes would have to taken into account and tough standards for physical strength and specific skills would be strictly tied to the requirements of a particular job, the official said.

"We may not raise or lower our standards," the official said.

Panetta's decision would apply mainly to the Army and the Marine Corps, as the Air Force and Navy already have lifted most prohibitions on women in combat, allowing them to fly fighter jets and fire weapons on warships. In 2010, the Navy opted to allow women to serve on submarines.

Panetta was due to discuss his decision at a press conference later on Thursday along with the US military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

US commanders began taking a second look at the ban in 2010 to reflect the changing conditions on the battlefield, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put women in harm's way.

Women make up about 14.5 percent of the active duty US military, or about 204,000 service members. According to the Pentagon, 152 female troops have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Advocates for changing the policy have long argued that denying female troops a chance at ground combat jobs and awards effectively blocks them from attaining top jobs as commanders.

US Marine Cpl. Michelle Berglin patrols in Sangin on June 10, 2012
US Marine Cpl. Michelle Berglin patrols with Baker Company of the 1st battalion 7th Marines Regiment in Sangin on June 10, 2012.

Some senior officers opposed to the change say infantry and special operations forces units require major upper body strength and that difficult physical tests might be relaxed for female recruits.

And right-leaning commentators have questioned whether mothers in uniform -- especially single parents -- should be sent into combat, even if they volunteered for service.

The Marine Corps recently opened up infantry officer training to women but the two females who volunteered failed to pass the gruelling test.

Under the decision, about 53,000 positions in certain units that are now closed to women will be reviewed by the armed services and opened up to female applicants, officials said.

Another 184,000 positions for certain jobs will be opened to women that can meet gender-neutral standards.

Any post that a branch of the military recommends to be closed to women would have to be personally approved by the defense secretary, officials said.