Following the announcement, details of which will be revealed Thursday morning, the Defense Department will have the military services begin their own processes to implement the change, which could take years.
Multiple news sources broke word on Wednesday that Panetta would lift the ban, prompting a hurried response from a senior defense official. The official confirmed to reporters, in response to the media reports, that the ban was being lifted.
“The secretary and the chairman are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military. This policy change will initiate a process whereby the services will develop plans to implement this decision, which was made by the Secretary of Defense upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"For planning purposes, we will hold a backgrounder tomorrow morning to discuss this change in policy. Details to follow on time and location. We will not have further information tonight."
The announcement comes perhaps only weeks before Panetta is expected to leave office, giving the secretary a major late-hour imprint on his legacy, which also includes lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay troops.
Quickly, positive reactions came pouring in from Capitol Hill, including, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), an Iraq war combat veteran.
"Female service members have contributed on the battlefield as far back as the Civil War, when some disguised themselves as men just to have the opportunity to serve their nation. This decision by the Department of Defense is an overdue, yet welcome change, which I strongly support."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) said, “I applaud the secretary for formally removing the ban. The reality of today’s battlefield is that all who serve are in combat.”
But it did not come without some prodding by women in the ranks. In 2012, two groups of women, including one backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the U.S. for greater openness to military jobs from which they were barred because of the ban on direct combat. Female troops long have argued that women have seen plenty of direct combat, despite the formal ban, in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade. But those same women have had their career, benefits, and salaries stunted by the ban, they argued.
“We are thrilled to hear Secretary Panetta’s announcement today recognizing that qualified women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their brothers-in-arms, which they actually already have been doing with valor and distinction,” said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in a statement on Wednesday. “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.”
In 2012, Panetta opened roughly 14,000 military jobs to women. But in November, a group of female troops, with the help of the ACLU, sued to open the remaining more than 238,000 positions, as well.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, “I support it. It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations.”
Levin's fellow committee member Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), the wife of an Iraq veteran pilot, was "pleased" by the pending policy announcement. "I’ve seen firsthand servicemen and women working together in a range of dangerous operations to achieve our military objectives," she said, "and today’s announcement reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country."
A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said more details about the reasons behind their recommendations to lift the ban would come Thursday morning.
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