Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, officially rescinded the ban on women serving in ground combat units, signing the order at the Pentagon Thursday.
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I believe we must open up service opportunities for women as fully as possible,” Panetta said at the press conference. “And therefore today Gen. Dempsey and I are pleased to announce that we are eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women, and we are moving forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”
The outgoing secretary of defense said that he has been working for over a year with the Joint Chiefs to make the vision of expanded opportunities for women in uniform a reality.
“Our nation was built on the premise of the citizen soldier and our democracy I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation, and every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity,” he said.
Panetta noted that women comprise over 15 percent of the military and that 152 women in uniform have died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The fact is [women] have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission,” he said.
Panetta explained that women have “proven their willingness to fight, and yes, died to defend their fellow Americans,” noting that in early 2012 the Pentagon opened some ground combat unit opportunities to women and that the changes have been “positive.”
“I have been impressed with the fact that everyone, everyone, men and women alike, everyone is committed to doing the job. They are fighting and they are dying together,” he said. “And the time has come for the policies to recognize that reality.”
His vision is explained is to have the most efficient fighting force of qualified individuals, “regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.”
“We are all committed to accomplishing this change, without compromising readiness or morale or our fighting capabilities,” he said.
Panetta praised the Joint Chiefs’ plan to integrate women and said that the new positions will be open to women following services reviews.
“Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance,” he said.
Dempsey, who spoke after Panetta, stressed that the elimination of the ban would not result in lowered standards, but standards that are appropriate for accomplishing the job. He added, however, that if a standard is found to be too high for women, the service must explain why it is so high.
“We will also integrate women in a way that enhances opportunity for everyone,” Dempsey said. “This means setting clear standards of performance for all occupations based on what it actually takes to do the job. It also means ensuring the standards are gender neutral in occupations that are open to women.”
“We all wear the same uniform and we all fire the same weapons and most importantly we all take the same oath,” Dempsey added.
Services will submit plans in May outlining how they will accomplish the integration of women in these new capacities, Panetta noted.
“In this country, as the president himself pointed out in his inaugural speech, we’ve been on a long journey. A long journey toward achieving equality and there have been some tough challenges along the road in facing every barrier,” Panetta said, citing racial, sexual orientation and gender barriers as examples.
“I feel very confident we can make this work,” he added.
President Barack Obama praised the move, calling it “another step toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals of fairness and equality.”
“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,” Obama said in a statement released shortly after the official announcement.