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.
Panetta planned to announce at a Pentagon news conference that more than 230,000 battlefront posts — many in Army and Marine infantry units and in potentially elite commando jobs — are now open to women. It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army's Delta Force.
The historic change, which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.
The change won't take place overnight: Service chiefs will have to develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions, a senior military official said. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, may take longer. The services will have until January 2016 to make a case to that some positions should remain closed to women.
Officials briefed The Associated Press on the changes Wednesday on condition of anonymity so they could speak ahead of the official announcement.