Khalid Mohammed/AP

Defense opens 14,000 new roles to military women

Certain female specialists now may serve within battalions.

The Defense Department is removing restrictions that have prevented women from serving in certain combat roles in the military, Pentagon officials announced Thursday.

“Women have proved their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles on and off the battlefield,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement. “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.”

The move, which will open up 14,000 jobs for women at the battalion level, had been expected for a while. In March 2011, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission called on the Pentagon to scrap the policy that prevents women from serving in combat roles. The Congressional Research Service issued a similar recommendation in November.

“To make a change this large while you’re at war is difficult,” said Vee Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for military personnel policy. “It may appear slow to some, but I see this as a great step forward.”

The new positions open to women are roles they have previously held but only now will be able to do so within a battalion. The move will put women closer to combat, where they have informally been serving for years.

The decision will affect mostly women serving in the Army and Marine Corps. Defense lifted the ban on women serving on submarines in 2010, making more jobs available to them serving in the Navy, where 88 percent of roles are open to women. Ninety-nine percent of Air Force positions are open to women.

About 280,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, 12 percent of all who have served there, and 144 have been killed, according to the Associated Press.

Special Forces units such as the Navy SEALS and the Army Delta Force will still exclude women. Additionally, the Combat Exclusion policy stands, meaning women can serve alongside the infantry but cannot themselves become a member of the infantry.

“This is extremely disappointing,” said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “To continue such a ban is to ignore the talents and leadership that women bring to the military and it further penalizes service women by denying them the opportunity for future promotions and assignments that are primarily given to personnel from combat arms specialties.”

The change will take effect after a thirty-day period for congressional review.

After six months, the service chiefs will report to the Pentagon on how the branches are doing with including women in battalions, and how to open up more positions to them, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton said during a press conference.

The services also will develop gender-neutral physical standards for all members and will announce them at that time.

“Through the lens of 45 months in combat, I think it’s a great thing to do,” Patton said. “I wish I had the opportunity to bring women into my battalion; you’re expanding the talent pool.”

Patton said 238,000 military positions still remain closed to women for now.