Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the ban on women serving in combat, The Associated Press reports. The move, among the last of Panetta's tenure before stepping down as Pentagon chief, opens hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.
The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. It's the latest overhaul of longtime military rules. The "don't ask don't tell" prohibition against gays serving openly in the military was lifted in President Barack Obama's first term.
Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women. Back in November, four servicewomen along with the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Pentagon and Panetta over the combat exclusion policy.
Women, the lawsuit claimed, were already serving in combat roles, but were not receiving recognition for it. Last year, the military opened 14,500 positions to women and lifted a rule that prohibited women from living with combat units.
It's long been a sensitive issue in the military and American politics. In 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich told students in a Georgia college course that "females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections, and they don't have upper body strength," and added that men "are basically little piglets; you drop them in a ditch, they roll around in it."
Posted 12:45 PST.