— U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has lifted a rule that excluded women from combat in the U.S. military.
In one of his last actions before retiring as secretary of defense, Panetta signed an order Thursday rescinding a 1994 rule that excluded women from combat.
“We are eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women and we are moving forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service,” Panetta said.
The move is expected to open up thousands of new jobs previously not available to women on the front lines.
The defense secretary, joined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, told reporters at the Pentagon that women’s contributions to the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with their male counterparts in the past decade, warranted a reexamination of the old policy.
“They’re fighting and they’re dying together, and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality,” he said.
Panetta and Dempsey said a review is under way to see what frontline positions will be opened up to women.
Officials said physical standards in physical endurance and other tests will remain the same - an effort to allay concerns that military readiness could suffer if physical standards are lowered in order to make more jobs available to women.
Elaine Donnelly is with the Center for Military Readiness, a group that opposes the changes. She doubts the Pentagon will be able to keep standards the same while at the same time working to raise the number of women in uniform.
“All these assurances that we’re hearing about training standards remaining the same are incompatible with another promise made by the Pentagon last year, and that is to advance what are called gender-based diversity metrics, or quotas, in all the armed forces. In order to achieve the critical mass or diversity metrics, you have to lower standards," Donnelly said.
More than 202,000 women serve in the U.S. military, making up 15 percent of active U.S. personnel.
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