Pentagon shift opens big opportunities for women

Lifting a combat ban gives female military personnel access to nearly 240,000 jobs that were previously off limits.

By Bruce Kennedy Jan 24, 2013 5:31PM

Another glass ceiling is falling for American women, this time in the military. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the military was lifting its ban on women serving in combat roles.

Rescinding that ban means women will have access to nearly 240,000 jobs that were previously off limits, including new roles on the front lines. Women currently make up about 15%, or over 200,000, of the U.S. military’s 1.4 million active personnel.

"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 during a news conference at the Pentagon. "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 Wall Street Journal says the change should quickly open up 53,000 new positions for women in such jobs as combat medics and front-line supply specialists. The announcement follows last year’s Defense Department decision to open 14,000 additional jobs to women.

Panetta said the new positions would be open to women following service reviews. "For this change in policy to succeed, it must be done in a responsible, measured and coherent way," he noted.Image: The Pentagon -- Digital Vision., Photodisc, Getty Images

Senior military commanders will reportedly have until January 2016 to ask for exceptions to the new rules.

"The onus is going to be on them to justify why a woman can’t serve in a particular role," an unnamed official told the Washington Post ahead of the Pentagon press conference.

Women have already been serving in de facto combat positions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the Pentagon reports 152 female service personnel have died in those two conflicts.

"The reality is that so many women have been, in effect, in combat or quasi-combat," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview on Wednesday. "This is catching up with reality."

Sen. John MCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam veteran, supports the decision. But he says the armed forces must ensure "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," as the changes are implemented.


Being female in the U.S. Armed Forces has never been easy. Sexual harassment is reportedly commonplace -- and women in the military have a much higher chance of becoming sexual assault victims than civilian women.


But many active and veteran women military personnel welcome the news.

“This is monumental," Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, told the Washington Post. "Every time equality is recognized and meritocracy is enforced, it helps everyone, and it will help professionalize the force."

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