U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, a member of the female engagement team (FET) assigned to 2d Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, speaks with local civilians during an engagement mission in Marjah, Afghanistan, in this August 18, 2010 U.S. Marine Corps handout photo. The FET is attached to infantry battalions throughout Afghanistan to aid in engaging the female populace in support of the International Security Assistance Force. REUTERS/Lance Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum/U.S. Marine Corps/Handout (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS CONFLICT SOCIETY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in front-line combat roles on Thursday in a historic step toward gender equality in the U.S. armed forces after 11 years of nonstop war, during which the front lines were often not clearly defined.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an order at a Pentagon news conference rescinding the rule that prevented women from serving in direct combat jobs.
"They serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality," Panetta said, noting that 152 women in uniform had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism," he said.
The move topples another societal barrier in the U.S. armed forces, two years after the Pentagon scrapped its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
President Barack Obama expressed strong support for the new policy, as did top civilian and military officials.
"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," Obama said, calling the decision a "historic step."
The decision to lift the ban came with important caveats, and sweeping change will not happen overnight for women, nearly 300,000 of whom have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
The decision could open 237,000 positions to women in America's armed forces and expand opportunities for career advancement. But acceptance into the newly opened jobs will be based on gender neutral performance standards.
"Let me be clear. We are not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job," Panetta said. "If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation."
"There are no guarantees of success," he added. "Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance."
A senior defense official said Panetta's goal "is to open everything" to women. Service chiefs will have to ask for exceptions if they want to keep some positions closed, and any exception would have to be approved by the defense secretary.
Panetta made the decision to lift the ban after the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded it was time to integrate women "to the maximum extent possible," according to a statement.