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Women in Combat: Panetta, Dempsey Make It Official

US Department of Defense(WASHINGTON) -- Women will soon be able to serve in combat, as things officially changed with the stroke of a pen on Thursday at the Pentagon.

At a joint press conference, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey signed a memorandum rolling back a 1994 directive prohibiting women from doing so.

"They serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality," Panetta said of women and men in the military.

"If they're willing to put their lives on the line, then we need to recognize that they deserve a chance," Panetta said. "America stands for giving young people those kinds of opportunities. If they can do the job, if they can meet the standards, if they can meet the qualifications that are involved here, there is no reason that they shouldn't have a chance."

The change won't be immediate. While Panetta announced that thousands of new positions will now be open to women, he has asked the military branches to submit plans by May of this year on how to integrate women into combat operations. That means the changes could come into effect as early as May, though the services will have until January 2016 to complete the implementation of the changes.

Both Panetta and Dempsey said they believe the move will strengthen the U.S. military force.

"Ultimately we are acting to strengthen the armed forces," Dempsey said. "We will extend opportunities to women in a way that maintains readiness, morale, and unit cohesion."

Women have already served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but are technically restricted from certain roles. Women in support roles nonetheless served on the front lines, where they have fought, been wounded, and been killed.

Panetta noted that 152 women have died serving in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dempsey said he realized a change was inevitable when he noticed two female turret gunners protecting a senior military officer.

Women have flown combat missions since 1993 and have served on submarines since 2010.

"It's clear to all of us that women are contributing in unprecedented  ways to the military's mission of defending the nation. Women represent 15 percent of the force of over 200,000 [and] are serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield," Panetta said. "I've gone to Bethesda to visit wounded warriors, and I've gone to Arlington to bury our dead. There's no distinction."

Panetta and Dempsey both said President Obama supported the move, while warning them to maintain military readiness as they considered the change.

Obama hailed the move in a written statement.

"Today, by moving to open more military positions—including ground combat units—to women, our armed forces have taken another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens. This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today's military," Obama said.  

"As Commander in Chief, I am absolutely confident that—as with the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'—the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world. Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love," the president said.

As for the challenges in integrating women into combat roles, Dempsey stressed that the Joint Chiefs want a "critical mass" of women in the new roles, to serve as mentors and provide upward mobility. He also said that physical requirements won't be such a daunting challenge, and that it will be up to the service branches to justify any requirements that prevent women from serving.

"Physical standards seem to be the ones people focus on," Dempsey said, responding to a reporter's question. "We can figure that out. We figured out privacy."

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