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Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Lifts Military Ban on Women in Combat

Two days after President Obama vowed in his inaugural address to expand opportunities for women — as well as minorities, gays and immigrants — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is poised to lift the ban on females in combat.

This major shift comes two months after four current and retired servicewomen, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the Defense Department to lift the ban on women at the front lines, including the infantry.

The about-face by Panetta comes amid escalating calls for a fully inclusive military. He and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, will make it official on Thursday. The Army, Marines and other services will then develop plans to bring women into jobs in ground combat units, although top brass can request that some especially rigorous positions, such as special operations, be exempt from the new gender equality policy.

The Pentagon has already opened some 14,000 combat positions to women over the last decade, and with Panetta’s announcement, the Pentagon and the armed services, including the Marine Corps, will integrate more of them into combat roles. But roughly 238,000 military combat jobs remain closed to women by the Defense Department’s own count.

Over the past decade, thousands of women have fought — and many have been gravely wounded or killed — in front-line warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Jan. 3, the nation’s first two female combat veterans, both Democrats, were sworn in as members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Tulsi Gabbard, who joined the Hawaii National Guard after 9/11, deployed twice, once with a medical unit in Iraq and once training military police in Kuwait. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who lost her legs in 2004 after being shot down over Iraq. She went on to top jobs in federal and state veterans’ affairs agencies before winning a seat in Congress.

Duckworth was quick to embrace the news.  “This decision to allow women to serve in combat will allow the best man or woman on the front line to keep America safe,” she said in a statement. “There has always been some level of opposition to increasing the diversity in our military, whether it has been minorities or women. It is clear that the inclusion of groups like African Americans and Asians has made our military stronger. As a combat veteran, I know the inclusion of women in combat roles will make America safer and provide inspiration to women throughout our country.”

But Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark), who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, opposes lifting the ban. “To have women serving in infantry could impair the mission’s central task in those units. That’s been proved in study after study just as a matter of nature,” he told radio host Laura Ingraham earlier this month.

Cotton cited women’s comparative lack of “upper body strength and physical movement and speed and endurance” as reasons to keep the ban in place, although he praised the “brave contributions” of those who are, or have, served “on the front lines in critical capacities.”  He repeated that “to have them in the infantry, in either the Marine Corps or the Army, could impair the mission, the central task of those forces.”

Duckworth was having none of it, telling CNN that while Cotton is “certainly welcome to his opinion,” women are capable of becoming tank commanders or artillery operators. She also noted that the all-black Tuskegee Airmen never lost a plane flying in World War II despite skeptics who argued African Americans lacked the skills to become aviators. Ditto, said Duckworth, for loyal Japanese-Americans who fought for this country against their ancestral homeland despite fierce opposition to their service. More recently, she added, gays and lesbians have proven themselves worthy military personnel.

As for opening combat slots to her sisters in arms, Duckworth was philosophical. “If women can’t meet the standards, they don’t get to graduate” from the training programs.

Just like guys who wash out, right?

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said in a statement he’s all for opening the front lines to women because “it reflects the reality of 21st century military operations.”

That it does, noted Lt. Col. Sherry de Vries, a retired Marine who heads the Alliance for National Defense, a women’s military advocacy group that lobbied to overturn the ban.

“Women are in combat; they currently serve in Afghanistan and had been in combat in Iraq.  The chain of command has finally recognized reality.”

Or to put it more bluntly, she said, Panetta is ending an “‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ ban… In a war without front lines, the previous policy created a distinction without a difference, exposing military women to all the dangers of direct combat without crediting the female troops for their time in harm’s way. The old policy actually exposed women troops to additional danger.  Women work alongside male troops in combat units during the day and then are transported — often over dangerous routes — to an allegedly non-combat unit to sleep before covering the same dangerous road again in the morning.”

De Vries predicted that “women will continue to serve with honor and distinction in all branches of our Armed Services in peace and now officially in combat as well. Nothing is different but nothing will ever be the same.”

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post reporter and columnist who writes widely about politics, culture and design. Her work has also appeared in, the New York Times, Town&Country and More. She is at work on a memoir.