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Panetta: Women are integral to military's success

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in lifting a ban on women serving in combat, said women have become integral to the military's success and have shown they are willing to fight and die alongside their male counterparts.

"The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality," Panetta said Thursday at a Pentagon news conference with Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Panetta said that not all women will be able to meet the qualifications to be a combat soldier.

"But everyone is entitled to a chance," he said.

He said the qualifications will not be lowered, and with women playing a broader role, the military will be strengthened.

Panetta said that his visits to Afghanistan and Iraq to see U.S. forces in action demonstrated to him that women should have a chance to perform combat duties if they wish, and if they can meet the qualifications.

"Our military is more capable, and our force is more powerful, when we use all of the great diverse strengths of the American people," Panetta said earlier Thursday at a Pentagon ceremony in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.

Panetta is expected to step down as Pentagon chief sometime in February. Republican Former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has been nominated as his successor, and his Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 31.

"Every person in today's military has made a solemn commitment to fight, and if necessary to die, for our nation's defense," he said. "We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance."

The decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat presents a daunting challenge to top military leaders who now will have to decide which, if any, jobs they believe should be open only to men.

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