Women On the Front Lines: Panetta to Lift Combat Restrictions For Female Soldiers

Women may soon find themselves taking on more active roles in military combat.

On Thursday, the Pentagon is expected to announce that it will lift many (though not all) of the restrictions for women in the military. The Wall Street Journal reports, "The announcement will mark the largest expansion yet of women in combat roles. But defense officials said they don't expect the change to result in women being allowed to serve as infantry troops."

Combat exclusion policy was originally instituted almost 20 years ago, and was intended to limit women's exposure to combat. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's decision overturns a 1994 policy, "Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule" introduced by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, which prevented women from serving in direct ground combat units (infantry, armor, Special Forces, field artillery,and combat engineers) smaller than brigades. Women were permitted to work in service, support and transportation unit positions which provide medical care, supply and maintenance for combat units.

But as the Deparment of Defense noted in February of 2012, "The modern battlespace, however, without clearly defined boundaries, logically requires that the Department revisit this prohibition." In the same month, the DoD changed its assignment policy, opening 14,325 new positions for women in the military.

"Women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission," explained Panetta at the time. "Through their courage, sacrifice, patriotism and great skill, women have proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles on and off the battlefield. We will continue to open as many positions as possible to women so that anyone qualified to serve can have the opportunity to do so.”

Some, including then-Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, called for Panetta to go further. Brown wrote, "As a 32-year member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, I believe women should be able to serve in front line positions if they desire. I am mindful of the fact that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of 140 women serving as Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen. Their service was honorable and reflective of the day-to-day reality of modern warfare and the contributions made by female service members."

"Closing these opportunities to women affect their ability to develop a career path in the military and advance to higher ranks. We have an obligation to expand the professional opportunities available to women, especially considering their sacrifices. Doing so in my view would improve military effectiveness, not detract from it."

In November of 2012, the ACLU announced that it would be suing the Department of Defense regarding the exclusion of women from combat positions. The four plaintiffs in the case were all servicewomen who had served in combat or led female troops on missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. In its suit, the ACLU noted, "No United States statute requires this categorical exclusion of women. Instead, the DoD has itself decided to close these positions to servicewomen solely because they are women."

Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will formally announce the change on Thursday. Panetta is expected to step down from his role in the Department of Defense in the near future.