U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (shown) is set to lift the ban on women serving directly in combat, Pentagon officials said January 23. The move comes 10 years after the Department of Defense (DoD) began allowing large numbers of female military personnel serving in support positions to be placed in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also comes in the face of overwhelming counsel against the move from veteran front-line soldiers and officers, who warn of the impact on troop morale and combat readiness if women are allowed to serve in infantry and other combat positions. According to Pentagon spokesmen, the lifting of the ban was to be announced officially January 24 by Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Army Times noted that women currently serve in a number of non-infantry combat positions, piloting warplanes and manning ships in combat areas. According to the Pentagon, since the beginning of the Afghanistan/Iraq conflict, 292,000 women have served in those combat zones, 152 women have died (mostly of combat-related injuries), and 958 have been wounded.
According to the Congressional Research Service, modifications to women serving in combat areas began in 1994. Up to now women could not be assigned “below the brigade level — a unit of about 3,500 troops — to fight on the ground,” explained the Army Times. “Effectively, that has barred women from infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers and special operations units of battalion size — about 700 troops — or lower.”
The Pentagon officials said the service branches would now have until 2016 to fully integrate women into combat positions and to make their case for disallowing them from those areas where their presence would be a detriment.
The announcement comes as the White House prepares to replace Panetta with a new defense secretary, and while Congress has 30 days to consider the changes, some Republican lawmakers were upset that word was leaked to the press before Congress was duly informed. “It is unacceptable that information on the Defense Department’s plans related to women in combat was leaked prior to Congress being briefed,” said Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “As a result, we don’t yet know the details of this announcement. Based on my conversation today with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, I believe that Secretary Panetta will provide specific direction to the services on how to evaluate and identify opportunities for women to further serve their country.”
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