WASHINGTON — Following a unanimous recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today announced the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for female service members.
U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, joined Panetta at a Pentagon news conference in announcing the policy change.
The secretary also announced that the service branches will continue to move forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.
The change is intended to ensure that the best qualified and most capable Service members, regardless of gender, are available to carry out the mission, Panetta said.
“If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation,” he said.
In a statement released following the announcement, President Barack Obama praised the decision.
“This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military,” the president said. The decision opens up about 237,000 positions to women — 184,000 in combat arms professions and 53,000 assignments that were closed based on unit type.
Women are an integral part of DOD’s ability to fulfill its mission, Panetta said. “Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage, skill and patriotism, and 152 women in uniform have died serving this nation in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
The new policy is the culmination of a process that began last year, a senior defense official told reporters today. More than 14,000 assignments in ground combat units or collocated with ground combat units were opened to women in February.
That extension of women’s roles had a positive impact, Panetta said at the news conference.
“Every time I’ve visited the war zone, met with troops, reviewed military operations, talked to wounded warriors, I have been impressed with the fact that everyone is committed to doing the job,” he said. “They are fighting and dying together. The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”
The change ensured sufficient female mid-grade and senior enlisted and officers were in place to guarantee successful integration of junior personnel, a senior defense official said.
The secretary has directed the military services to undertake an evaluation of all occupational performance standards to ensure they are up to date and gender-neutral. Specialty schools will be included in the evaluation, a senior defense official said. The results of this evaluation are to be submitted to the defense secretary by May 15, while the entire process is to be completed by Jan. 1, 2016.