One of the worst kept secrets in the Defense Department came to light Thursday with the decision by Pentagon chief Leon Panetta to lift the ban on women serving in combat. It’s the right time and the right move.
This ends a 1994 rule put forth by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that prohibited women from being assigned to units below the brigade level, which is about 3,500 troops. A brigade is then split into battalions of about 800 soldiers, which are often placed closer to enemy contact stations.
The different services have until January 2016 to develop plans for allowing women to seek combat positions, but earlier reports suggested some special forces operations like the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force may be granted exclusions or at least will take more time to clear.
Nearly a year ago, the Pentagon opened up about 14,500 combat positions to women mostly in the Army. This latest move could open more than 230,000 jobs, possibly even into infantry units of the Army and Marines.
Women already have been serving as medics, military police and intelligence officers “attached” but not assigned to units on the front line. By not being formally assigned, women miss out on combat “credits” often considered important for advancement.
There have been critics of such a change questioning whether women have the necessary strength and stamina, or if even their presence would hurt cohesion.
But the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the concept of a conventional battlefield is long gone, with combat operations springing up in any location, making it impossible to keep women clear of combat. Nearly 300,000 women have already been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or to neighboring nations in support of the wars. More than 130 women have been killed and more than 800 have been wounded.
There have been cases of women acting heroically in helicopter support or helping defend positions under attack while serving as medics, such as Pfc. Monica Brown, who received a Silver Star for bravery – and then was pulled out of the combat zone because of Army restrictions.