Women in Combat: What Will it Mean?

Officials, veterans describe the new era of the U.S. military.

U.S. Army Captain Hellie (last name not given) adjusts her helmet as she walks away from an Apache combat helicopter at the army base at Bagram, Afghanistan, Saturday March 8, 2003. Women in the U.S. army play an important role in all levels of operations. March 8 is International Women's Day.
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The Pentagon's decision to overturn one of the biggest obstacles to equality in military service opens up a series of daunting questions, sure to challenge the military's ability to maintain readiness while simultaneously adding women to combat roles.

[MORE: Pentagon Lifts Restrictions on Women in Combat]

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Thursday announcement that he was lifting the ban on women serving in combat positions was met with enthusiasm among female troops and veterans across the country. Many of the 280,000 female veterans have already been thrust into combat situations by virtue of America's ongoing wars and are relieved by what they see is the military's final acknowledgment of current reality.

Now they must wait to see how the service branches plan to send America's women into harm's way.

"The burden used to be, 'Why should a woman serve in a particular specialty?' Now it's 'Why shouldn't a woman serve in a particular specialty?'" said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a joint press briefing.

Two groups of positions will now be available to women. Some units known for forward operations previously banned women from serving in roles they have elsewhere, such as medics, which account for roughly 53,000 positions. Another 184,000 positions strictly exclude women, such as infantry soldiers or special operations commandos.

[PHOTOS: Panetta Lifts Ban on Women in Combat]

All armed services will have to submit a plan for how they will study incorporating women into combat by May 15, 2013. The implementation must be finalized by Jan. 1, 2016.

The secretary of Defense will have to personally approve any roles that military branches wish to remain off-limits to women.

"There are still a lot of steps, there is still a lot of opportunity for the service chiefs to try to get certain opportunities closed," says Zoe Bedell, a retired Marine Corps captain with experience patrolling with infantry units in Afghanistan.

Determining whether women can succeed in certain roles may be clear cut. Tank troops, for example, must be able to sit in a confined turret, and lift a roughly 50-pound artillery round off the interior rack, rotate it 180 degrees and insert it into the gun chamber without the luxury of using their legs. If women are unable to perform this task, they will not be eligible for that position.

[READ: Women in Combat -- How Should It Be Done?]

Other roles are much more nuanced. Two women washed out of the Marine Corps' grueling Infantry Officers Course last fall because they were unable to keep up with the men physically. These standards likely won't change, senior defense officials indicated on Thursday.

However, it remains unclear whether the course is a true representation of the rigors of combat, or if it is designed to weed out only the strongest men.

"There absolutely should be standards, there should be a requirement for the field that really is a realistic requirement of what needs to be done, not just keeping women out," says Bedell, one of the plaintiffs in an ACLU suit against the Pentagon.

The memo Dempsey and Panetta signed Thursday would expressly forbid raising or lowering any standards for the purpose of increasing or decreasing the number of women in a certain occupation, a senior defense official said Thursday.

[ALSO: Female Marines Will Have to do Pull-Ups by 2014]

Other experts believe a natural evolution will help women catch up to the men.

"We really need to look at the history of sports in general and women's physical fitness, which has developed so rapidly over the last 50 years," says Laura Browder, an English professor at the University of Richmond and expert on women in combat.

"If you look at Olympic records and marathon records, women are able to do so much more now than they were decades ago. The physical fitness standards in the military are such that women are very, very eager to meet them. I believe they'll rise to the challenge," says Browder, who authored "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Stories of American Women at War."