The Pentagon will lift its ban on women serving in combat roles, a senior defense official says.
Women were previously banned from positions that would put them directly into combat, such as infantry, armor, cavalry or special operations units. Advocates for expanding the role of women in the military, including the ACLU through a lawsuit, have pushed the Pentagon to lift these restrictions.
The Pentagon's top military advisors recommended the change to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the official says.
"The 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," the official said Wednesday. It is not yet clear when the policy will take effect, though the Associated Press reports service branches have until January 2016 to apply for special exceptions to the new rule.
"This is excellent news. I'm delighted to hear this," says Zoe Bedell, a retired Marine captain and one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit. "It's been a long time coming and it's good we're going to finally recognize women for the work we're doing."
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without clear front lines have often thrust women into de facto combat roles. During her tenure in Afghanistan, Bedell led Female Engagement Teams, which the Marine Corps uses to accommodate local restrictions on men interaction with women.
The news on Wednesday overturns the 1994 ruling that prohibits women from serving in ground combat units.
Each service branch will begin developing plans for incorporating women. A senior military official tells the AP that special operations forces, such as the Army's Delta Force or Navy SEALs may take longer to develop these plans.
The Pentagon began experimenting last year with the prospect of women serving in combat roles. Two women signed up for the Marines' grueling Infantry Officers Course, but both washed out within a week.
In late November, the ACLU announced its lawsuit against the Department of Defense to lift all restrictions on women serving in combat, saying the system was "harming women in the field."
"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. "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."
Bedell told U.S. News she left the Marine Corps after her four-year tour because she felt her prospects for promotion and recognition were limited by exclusionary practices of the mostly male military.
"Why would we want to stop our military from selecting the top people for jobs?" Bedell said in November. "We are asking for the chance to compete for the same jobs as men. This benefits our military by having people in positions not because of an irrelevant factor like gender, but because of their demonstrated abilities."