By Matt Smith, (CNN) — The U.S. military is dropping its longstanding exclusion of women from combat units, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday, calling it a recognition of the reality on the battlefield.
“The fact is, they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission, and for more than a decade of war they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon. American servicemen and women are already “fighting and they’re dying together, and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recounted a foray onto the streets of Baghdad as commander of an armored division in the early days of the war in Iraq.
“I slapped the turret gunner on the leg and I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she leaned down and said, I’m Amanda.’ And I said, ‘Ah, OK,’ ” Dempsey said.
“So, female turret-gunner protecting division commander. It’s from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it.”
About 203,000 women are in the active-duty military, including 69 generals and admirals. Despite the official ban on combat, which dates back to 1994, women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan often found themselves engaged in firefights.
Women made up 67 of the nearly 3,500 Americans lost in hostile fire in Iraq and 33 of the 1,700-plus killed in combat in Afghanistan; more than 600 in Iraq and 300 in Afghanistan were wounded.
The Pentagon loosened the restrictions in 2012, and Panetta said the result “has been very positive.”
“If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — 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” he said.
Officials told CNN on Wednesday that not every position will open all at once. Once the policy is changed, the Department of Defense will enter what is being called an “assessment phase,” in which each branch of service will examine all its jobs and units not currently integrated and then produce a timetable for integrating them.
The Army and Marine Corps, especially, will be examining physical standards and gender-neutral accommodations within combat units. Every 90 days, the service chiefs will have to report on their progress.
Dempsey said the services can still recommend closing a particular specialty or unit to women — but “They have to explain why, and I think there will be the right amount of scrutiny on that.”
Earlier this month, the Army opened the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to women, and it has begun recruiting female pilots and crew chiefs. The Navy has put its first female officers on submarines in the past year, and certain female ground troops have been attached to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The move is one of the last significant policy decisions made by Panetta, who is expected to leave in mid-February. It is not clear where former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the nominated replacement, stands, but officials say he was apprised of Panetta’s announcement.
Panetta is setting the goal of January 2016 for all assessments to be complete and women to be integrated as much as possible, a senior defense official said Wednesday.
“It will take a while to work out the mechanics in some cases. We expect some jobs to open quickly, by the end of this year. Others, like special operations forces and infantry, may take longer,” the official said.
“The first two women who earned Silver Stars since World War II, one was a military police sergeant. Another was a medic,” Gabbard told CNN ahead of Thursday’s announcement. “And they both were operating on the front lines per se, under fire, under extreme duress, shoulder to shoulder with their male and female counterparts and exhibiting great courage and heroism and saving the lives of their brothers and sisters.”
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent six years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said he supports lifting the ban on women serving in combat, pointing out women are already serving in harm’s way. But he said the move should not fundamentally change the military.
“As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world — particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units,” McCain said in a statement Wednesday.
Gabbard said she agreed with McCain that physical standards shouldn’t be compromised, but added, “If women are in an ability to meet those standards, they should be allowed to serve.”
The Pentagon must notify Congress of each job or unit as it is sent up to the secretary to be opened to women. Then the Defense Department must wait 30 days while Congress is in session before implementing the change.
It is a marked difference from the way the military ended the exclusion of gays serving openly, or the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In that case, there were no stipulations attached to openly gay service members. There was no staggered approach that integrated openly gay troops into units. It was instead done all at once, across the board.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Defense, charging that combat exclusion is unfair and outdated, harms America’s safety and prevents women from receiving training and recognition for their work. The plaintiffs, who include women awarded Purple Hearts, say the exclusion places them at a disadvantage for promotion.
The ACLU said was thrilled with Panetta’s announcement.
“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,” Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in the statement.