WASHINGTON — Allowing women to serve in combat roles will strengthen the U.S. military’s ability to win wars, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today, shortly before his official announcement of the landmark change.
“Our military is more capable, and our force is more powerful, when we use all of the great diverse strengths of the American people,” Panetta said at a Pentagon ceremony in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Every person in today’s military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die, for our nation’s defense,” he said. “We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance.”
The decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat presents a daunting challenge to top military leaders who now will have to decide which, if any, jobs they believe should be open only to men.
Panetta planned to announce at a Pentagon news conference that more than 230,000 battlefront posts — many in Army and Marine infantry units and in potentially elite commando jobs — are now open to women. It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army’s Delta Force.
The historic change, which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
The senior military official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.