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.
The military's official policy toward servicewomen, based on the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, generally bars women from assignment to units below the brigade level when the units' primary mission is direct ground combat, according to Defense spokeswoman Eileen Lainez. The rule gives the services discretion to further restrict women from positions with physically demanding tasks, special operations, stationing or cohabitating with combat troops, or a lack of privacy.
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."
"And coming so soon after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, [it ] demonstrates another landmark victory for equality in our military," Tsongas said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “The announcement Secretary Panetta is expected to make tomorrow will put us on a path to giving women the same access to the protections and benefits afforded the men they serve alongside. It will finally acknowledge the reality of the current nature of war, where the lines between combat and support personnel are not clearly drawn. And, most importantly, it will help us build a stronger armed forces.”
Though the Defense Department opened 14,325 jobs to women in May, of the 1.2 million positions available throughout the military, some 237,854 -- roughly 19 percent -- remain closed to women. The decision to lift the combat exclusion policy moves the military far beyond earlier reforms, potentially opening hundreds of thousands of positions, including those in its most elite combat units.
Panetta had directed the services to update him by November with an evaluation of the reforms and "an assessment of the remaining barriers to full implementation of a gender-neutral assignment policy," a Defense spokeswoman said in November. Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense spokesman, said on Tuesday that those evaluations had been provided to Panetta.
"Rest assured, Secretary Panetta takes this issue very seriously and remains strongly committed to examining the expansion of roles for women in the U.S. military," Christensen said in a statement.
But the policy change is not likely to be without opposition. The Center for Military Readiness, an independent organization that focuses on military personnel policy, responded to the "situation" with an analysis and pledge to "call on members of Congress to provide diligent oversight that is authorized in the United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.
"The last committee hearing on the subject occurred in the House in 1979, 33 years ago," the organization said in a statement. "It is long past time for the Obama Administration and Congress to pay women the compliment of taking this issue seriously."
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."
This article has been updated with comment from the Center for Military Readiness.