WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is lifting the military ban on women in combat, allowing them to officially serve on the front lines for the first time in the history of U.S. armed forces.
The policy change, to be announced Thursday at the Pentagon, “will initiate a process whereby the services will develop plans to implement this decision, which was made by the Secretary of Defense upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” a senior Defense Department official said Wednesday in a statement to The Huffington Post.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, lauded the change. “After a decade of critical military service in hostile environments, women have demonstrated a wide range of capabilities in combat operations and we welcome this review,” McKeon said in a statement Wednesday.
The Department of Defense notified members of Congress of the change on Wednesday afternoon, according to a congressional source who didn’t want to be named because the policy is not yet officially announced. Following Thursday’s announcement, Congress will have 30 days to weigh in on the decision. The military services will have until May 15 to inform Panetta of implementation plans, and until January 2016 to seek exemptions.
Despite the ban, some women have been serving in combat for more than a decade. Often, though, their service is not officially recognized, which can obstruct professional advancement or access to benefits. Active-duty female personnel make up roughly 15 percent — or 207,308 members — of the more than 1.4 million armed forces, according to the Department of Defense.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called Panetta’s decision “welcome news.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a twice-deployed combat veteran, called the decision “overdue, yet welcome.”
“Today is a historic day for not only women currently serving in our armed forces, but for all of the women who have selflessly put their lives on the line in theaters of war throughout our nation’s history,” Gabbard said in a press release Wednesday.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a Purple Heart recipient taken captive after her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in the Gulf War, told The Huffington Post she did not have much to say, other than: “It is about time.”