WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is planning to lift the ban on women serving in ground combat units, removing one of the military's last major gender barriers and opening up more than 230,000 combat jobs to women, according to several published reports.
The historic decision, which Panetta is expected to announce today, means that women serving in the Army and the Marines may soon be assigned for the first time to combat roles in infantry, armor and field artillery battalions, companies, platoons and squads.
Although the move raises the likelihood that female troops will suffer far higher casualties in future wars, Tampa Bay area women who served in the military applauded the plan.
"It's long overdue," said Kiersten Downs, 30, an Air Force veteran working on her doctorate in applied anthropology at the University of South Florida. "It's monumental for an institution whose structure has been built on a foundation of androcentric (male-centered) principles.
"Women have been serving next to men in combat positions for quite a while now. It just hasn't been acknowledged," she said. "That it's taken us this long to acknowledge, I don't understand. But I'm glad it's happened."
Downs, who served in Iraq in 2006-07, said she asked her male colleagues Wednesday whether they found valid the complaints by some that women in combat will affect morale among men.
"They said no," Downs said. "If they can perform the job, then they need to be given the chance to perform that job."
Sara Singleton, a 22-year-old from Tampa who served 3 ½ years in the Army, including 10 months in Afghanistan, said she expects push back from male soldiers to the news.
"It's tradition. It's been that way for so long," Singleton said. "There will just have to be some changes."
The Army and the Marines have long resisted putting women in combat units, arguing that they lack the strength and agility to fight and survive in the harshest conditions. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the other service chiefs support the move to end the ban, according to a McClatchy-Tribune report.
Panetta will direct the chiefs of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines to develop plans for integrating women into combat units by 2016. He will order each branch to provide initial blueprints by this spring, and the services are expected to start implementing the policy fairly quickly.
Each service may seek to keep some positions closed to women, but the goal will be to keep those exceptions to a minimum, the report said, citing senior Defense Department officials.
The services will be allowed to set physical fitness requirements and other standards for combat jobs, but the standards will be gender-neutral, the report said.
Panetta's decision specifically lifts a 1994 Pentagon rule that bars women from serving in jobs that make them likely to engage in direct ground fighting.
Congress will have a month to review the decision before it goes into effect. The immediate reaction in Congress was mixed.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam combat veteran who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted: "I respect and support" Panetta's decision "to lift the ban on women serving in combat."
But Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said Panetta needs to explain "how this decision … increases combat effectiveness, rather than being a move done for political purposes — which is what this looks like."
The Air Force and the Navy are well ahead of the other services in integrating women into their forces, largely because neither service is heavily involved in ground combat. Women pilots have flown in combat since 1993, for instance.
Under a 1994 Pentagon policy, women were prohibited from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops split into several battalions of about 800 soldiers each. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines, and they often included top command and support staff.
The necessities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached — but not formally assigned — to battalions. So while a woman couldn't be assigned as an infantryman in a battalion going out on patrol, she could fly the helicopter supporting the unit or move in to provide medical aid if troops were injured.
And these conflicts, in which battlefield lines are blurred and insurgents can lurk around every corner, have made it almost impossible to keep women clear of combat.
Times staff writer Will Hobson and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from McClatchy-Tribune News Service and the Associated Press.