The decision to open combat roles to women in the military is a historic step toward acknowledging the dangers they face in modern warfare and the sacrifices they already have been courageously making. Top military brass urged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to lift the official ban that unduly limits leadership opportunities for women warriors. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the anachronistic gender restrictions unnecessary. The move is an advance for women and a step forward in military strength and readiness.
Panetta's announcement has the feel of playing catchup, as the military's top commanders finally acknowledge the reality on the ground. More than 280,000 female soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many facing combat. In modern wars and counterinsurgencies where there are no front lines, the divide between a combat assignment and a support role blurs. Female soldiers face lethal danger as part of foot patrols, security for supply convoys and other support actions that can lead to engagement with the enemy. More than 150 women have died and thousands have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite this, women have been officially prevented from assignment to hundreds of thousands of front-line jobs under a Pentagon rule that keeps them out of the infantry and other combat roles. Women have long chafed against these restrictions since they impede career advancement. Going forward, as each branch adopts an implementation plan, there will eventually be no arbitrary gender-based restrictions, with limited case-by-case exceptions.
The move is part of a broadening of the armed forces under President Barack Obama, who also succeeded in repealing "don't ask, don't tell" so gay and lesbians could serve openly. Troops will be judged on the basis of merit rather than gender or sexual orientation. That is a commendable goal.
In a sign that women have proven themselves in warfare, Panetta's announcement brought a bipartisan chorus of support from members of Congress, with only a few conservative and religious groups expressing opposition. It's clear that the nation recognizes women already are in harm's way in war zones, understands their desire to advance and honors their sacrifice and service.
Obama lauded the change as a "milestone" reflecting "the indispensable role of women in today's military." Granting women equality in the military means the nation can now field the best fighting forces America has to offer without regard to gender.