January 23rd, 2013
03:21 PM ET

Military to open combat jobs to women

By Chris Lawrence, with reporting from Barbara Starr

[Updated at 9:30 p.m. ET] The U.S. military is ending its policy of excluding women from combat and will open combat jobs and direct combat units to female troops, multiple officials told CNN on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make the announcement Thursday and notify Congress of the planned change in policy, the officials said.

"We will eliminate the policy of 'no women in units that are tasked with direct combat,'" a senior defense official said.

The officials cautioned, however, that "not every position will open all at once on Thursday." Once the policy is changed, the Department of Defense will enter what is being called an "assessment phase," in which each branch of service will examine all its jobs and units not currently integrated and then produce a timetable for integrating them.

Go to CNN's iReport to share your thoughts on women in combat

The Army and Marine Corps, especially, will be examining physical standards and gender-neutral accommodations within combat units. Every 90 days, the service chiefs will have to report on their progress.

The move will be one of the last significant policy decisions made by Panetta, who is expected to leave in mid-February. It is not clear where former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the nominated replacement, stands, but officials say he has been apprised of Panetta's coming announcement.

"It will take a while to work out the mechanics in some cases. We expect some jobs to open quickly, by the end of this year. Others, like special operations forces and infantry, may take longer," a senior defense official explained. Panetta is setting the goal of January 2016 for all assessments to be complete and women to be integrated as much as possible.

The Pentagon has left itself some wiggle room, however, which may ultimately lead to some jobs being designated as closed to women. A senior defense official said if, after the assessment, a branch finds that "a specific job or unit should not be open, they can go back to the secretary and ask for an exemption to the policy, to designate the job or unit as closed."

The official said the goal remains to open as many jobs as possible. "We should open all specialties to the maximum extent possible to women. We know they can do it."

CNN readers skirmish over women in battle

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent six years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said he supports lifting the ban on women serving in combat, pointing out women are already serving in harm's way. But he said the move should not fundamentally change the military.

"As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world - particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units," McCain said in a statement.

By the numbers: Women in the U.S. military

Thousands of women in the military have already found themselves in combat situations, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. Recent wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan have lacked a real front line, and women serving there have come under fire and had to fight back alongside male counterparts, she said.

Murray, who leads the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and is a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, called Panetta's decision a "historic step for equality" that recognizes the role women play in the military.

The Pentagon must notify Congress of each job or unit as it is sent up to the secretary to be opened to women. Then the Defense Department must wait 30 days while Congress is in session before implementing the change.

It is a marked difference from the way the military ended the exclusion of gays serving openly, or the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. In that case, there were no stipulations attached to openly gay service members. There was no staggered approach that integrated openly gay troops into units. It was instead done all at once, across the board.

A senior defense official explained the Pentagon's reasoning behind the different approach: "You're talking about personal choice of behavior versus physical capability. And they were already in the units. If you take a unit that's never had women before, that's quite a culture change."

Another senior defense official said the goal is "to provide a level, gender-neutral playing field."

The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Defense, charging that combat exclusion is unfair and outdated, harms America's safety and prevents women from receiving training and recognition for their work. The plaintiffs, who include women awarded Purple Hearts, say the exclusion places them at a disadvantage for promotion.

Former troops say time has come for women in combat units

The ACLU said it is thrilled about Panetta's planned announcement.

"But we welcome this statement with cautious optimism, as we hope that it will be implemented fairly and quickly so that servicewomen can receive the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts," Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, said in the statement.

Earlier this month, the Army opened the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to women, and it has begun recruiting female pilots and crew chiefs. The Navy has put its first female officers on submarines in the past year, and certain female ground troops have been attached to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 800 women were wounded in those wars, and at least 130 have died.

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    July 11, 2014 at 1:47 am | Reply
  2. Tonitta

    The question still remains if the decision to allow women into combat job is the right thing to do. One side argues that women do not have enough physical strength to fight in combat. Also that man may feel obligated to protect a woman that is fighting beside them. Another side argues that there are several women that serve in the United States military that can meet the physical strength required to fight in combat. However those who believe that women are not capable of fighting in combat are based off of opinions. Studies have been done to prove that there are women serving in the military have the ability to fight in combat.

    July 9, 2014 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  3. Tallia

    The United States Army provides Equal Opportunity to all Soldiers and their family members under Army Regulation 600-20 chapter 6. Yet there are many jobs and schools that female Soldiers are not authorized to attend or work. Combat jobs and special operations schools are only open to male Soldiers. While all branches of the Military are working to open positions for female Soldiers, in the US Army there will still be schools that will not allow females to attend such as Ranger School. Female Soldiers are needed for several reason including assistance with the female population when deployed. There are assistance teams for females to temporarily join when deployed but there would be no need to put together teams if more jobs were open to them. Women do not have the same muscle mass and their bodies are built differently from men. That is why the Army's Physical Fitness standard is different for males and females. While there are females that can max the standards on a male scale, just as men, women can train their bodies to get to a certain level. It has passed that the standards will not have to drop in order to allow female to join combat jobs. Since one of the Army's priority is to train, the female Soldiers will be trained and have to pass the same test and requirements as the male Soldiers. The problem is women are not being treated equally if they are not given the same opportunities as men in the United States Army. If women can deploy and give their lives in combat just as the men Soldiers, then they should be treated fairly and given the same opportunities as the male Soldiers.

    July 8, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Reply
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    January 24, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • jeff

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  6. Kyle V

    Combat arms jobs are to be exclusive. To spite the amount of worthless excuses for Soldiers and Service Members that were let in under the troop surge, combat arms jobs need to remain exclusive. The physical fitness standards are already way to low. I in no way shape form or fashion support allowing anyone into combat arms on the PT scale that has been adjusted for females.

    December 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • Robison

      Did you even read or listen to the news? STANDARDS WILL NOT BE LOWERED TO ACCOMODATE WOMEN. Women who are able to pass neutrality physical fitness standards will be able to apply to the restricted combat units. Training plans will not accommodate women, but will challenge them just as they do all men to reach as high a fitness level as their peers. Trust me, it doesn't take an Olympic lifter to aim and pull a trigger.

      February 7, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Reply
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  8. Trixie

    I'm only a 13 year old girl, and I've already decided I am going to join the army. I'm thrilled that women are now aloud to fight in combat. That's all I've every really wanted to do. Serve my country. Like someone else was saying, I would hate to sit behind a desk all day. I want to face war head on and know upfront that I am serving my country.

    September 16, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  9. Mary davis

    It's about time that they started to allow women into combat units. I mean I am a female prior military and one of the biggest reasons that I got out of the military was because I wasn't a loud to do anything the men do such as 11B. I mean the whole reason I joined was to defend my country and ended up behind a desk and being made to feel like I was doing something. When I joined I knew exactly what I was joining and why I was joining and neither of these including sitting behind a desk. I join to protect my country not to defend a pen on my desk. I had so many hopes and aspirations while in the military and the biggest thing that I wanted to do of all was be a sniper. I got tired of being told you can't be a sniper you are a female or you can't be in special forces because you are a female. Straight out of my drill sgt's mouth was these words that I will never forget, he said "I would rather have a female battle buddy in combat over a man any day." When he was asked why, this was his response, " A female will protect you and shoot someone quicker than a man will." I believe there is a lot of truth to this. The reason I believe this is because many women have children at home that they must come back to and like they say it is a very dangerous spot to stand between a mother and her children.

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  13. Spartacus

    We males are just beasts, our manly flesh has the duty to love the toils and pains of the military life. We can be forced to be examined like animals, regardless to our modesty, completely naked; we can be forced to cut our hairs like prisoners, deprived of our civil rights for our Country's sake, because we males can be used as cannon fodder, but not the women! Having millions of males tortured and killed is better than having even just one woman in a dangerous situation! I respect the equality gender only to the advantage of women, rather I prefer more rights for them and more duties for us, because women are far superior than us males! I hope than the draft will remain just for males, because a woman cannot be forced to anything, much less to the war's dangers. A male.

    April 7, 2013 at 11:01 pm | Reply
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  15. Tanaya Comer

    About time. I just wish they had said that a year or two ago when I went to pick my job for the Army.

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  17. Ebony mclaury

    I agree, I think women should be able to fight. " WOMEN CAN DO WHAT MEN DO." Women should have the same rights as a man. Just because we are women it doesn't mean that we can't fight for what we think is right. It not a bad idea to lift the combat. Because I look at it as the women wanting to help the man out in what they do. People always look at the negative in life. Why not look at the positive in life. The women fight is showing how much they believe in them to do a mans job to me that says a lot. It also tells me that they don't care what they have to do to fight for what they believing. There is so many of us that are so glad that there is some women out who don't care about it and want to fight. I supports them 100% that they want to do this. I really don't care about the combat and I feel like the military don't either because they love there job. I also want to point out the if we do take them out what are we going to do when there is no more man out there that want to join the military? What are we really going to do? It give us some thing to think about. "WOMEN IN THE MILITARY I AM WITH YOU 100% GOOD LUCK!"

    March 7, 2013 at 9:43 am | Reply
    • Myles wright

      What I'm trying to do is at least make a ripple in the women's right community. I really believe that I can make a change and my voice can be heard I want to take a stand for all the women who love what they do and love what others do for them.

      March 7, 2013 at 10:54 am | Reply
  18. Leah B.

    This topic has many different views, some more opinionated and passionate than others. Many concerns circle around this topic such as, women not being efficient or not being able to be equal to men fighting along side them. Women are just the same as men, they are just built different. If a women is physically efficient enough to fight in the front lines there shouldn't be a problem. I feel that it is good to have women fighting alongside men, it expresses and shows that they love their country as much as anybody else and they would risk their lives to show this. It would show other countries that America is one and they fight as one.

    March 6, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  19. Devin C-Z

    Citizens need to stop underestimating women! They may be emotional at times, but that doesn't mean they can't battle in combat. There has been a lot of heroism throughout history coming from women. People think that men are automatically cut out for being in the army or in combat. Why cat women be?? They can do anything they want to if they are determined and put their minds to it! Also, people think that women aren't physically prepared for the actions they do. Some women are so determined that they are. They deserve to battle in combat if they choose to!

    March 6, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
    • Myles wright

      Thank you so much that's all I want to get out. My aunt is amazing and she takes her job very very serious she is very great full of her chance to be in active duty and serve our country she loves what she does and I want to stand up for what she and I... And my whole family believes

      March 6, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  20. Myles wright

    I think that this is a huge step in women's right to fight in the frontlines of combat. I am pro for this because I have seen some of my female family members do great things in the military. My aunt has been in the military for over 3 years now and she is a sergeant. Women should have equal rights that men do. We have treated them equal in sports and other things like that, why can't we be equals in the frontlines of combat. If men want to take on the responsibility of having a man-made job than that's what they decide. I honestly believe that women should have 100% freedom in the military to have whatever job they wish. I believe that this is the beginning of a new era of women in combat.

    March 6, 2013 at 11:47 am | Reply
    • Josh Riddenour

      Men and women aren't treated the same in sports, why do you thinm they aren't allowed to compete against women in basketball etc? Or in many Olympic sports? Know this, your beliefs will get people killed

      August 11, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Reply
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