Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta plans to announce Thursday a lifting of the ban on female service members in combat roles, a watershed policy change that was informed by women’s valor in Iraq and Afghanistan and that removes the remaining barrier to a fully inclusive military, defense officials said.
Panetta made the decision “upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” a senior defense official said Wednesday, an assertion that stunned female veteran activists who said they assumed that the brass was still uneasy about opening the most physically arduous positions to women. The Army and the Marines, which make up the bulk of the military’s ground combat force, will present plans to open most jobs to women by May 15.
The Army, by far the largest fighting force, currently excludes women from nearly 25 percent of active-duty roles. A senior defense official said the Pentagon expects to open “many positions” to women this year; senior commanders will have until January 2016 to ask for exceptions.
“The onus is going to be on them to justify why a woman can’t serve in a particular role,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plan before the official announcement.
The decision comes after a decade of counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women demonstrated heroism on battlefields with no front lines. It dovetails with another seismic policy change in the military that has been implemented relatively smoothly: the repeal of the ban on openly gay service members.
Lawmakers and female veterans applauded Wednesday’s news, saying the ban on women in combat roles is obsolete.
“This is monumental,” said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which has advocated for the full inclusion of women. “Every time equality is recognized and meritocracy is enforced, it helps everyone, and it will help professionalize the force.”
Critics of opening combat positions to women have argued for years that integration during deployments could create a distracting, sexually charged atmosphere in the force and that women are unable to perform some of the more physically demanding jobs.
Advocates and experts say women are unlikely to flock to those positions, such as roles in light infantry and tank units and Special Forces — although some may. More substantively, they say, lifting the ban will go a long way toward changing the culture of a male-dominated institution in which women have long complained about discrimination and a high incidence of sexual assault.
Changes long sought
Lawmakers and advocates have long pressed the Pentagon to create a more inclusive force, yielding incremental changes. The American Civil Liberties Union recently sued the Pentagon over its policy, calling it discriminatory.