With his announcement Thursday to lift the military's ban on women in combat, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta tore down a barrier to advancement that remained in place long after the tasks performed by female soldiers had made it moot.
His ground-breaking decision does not require congressional approval and can be negated only if lawmakers pass a bill prohibiting it. The change overturns a 1994 Pentagon rule that, on paper, restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles. In reality, the lines between combat and non-combat tasks have become very blurry, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 20,000 women have served, more than 900 have been wounded and 152 died.
Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air National Guard helicopter pilot, stands as an example. Although she was shot down, returned fire and was wounded in Afghanistan, she could not seek combat leadership positions because the Defense Department did not consider her service as combat action. Her dilemma was not unique.
It is telling that the push for abolishing the restrictions on female service members came not from civilian quarters but from top military leadership; Mr. Panetta's decision came after he received a letter recommending it from Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The effect of Mr. Panetta's decision is to flip the burden of proof on whether women can fill particular roles in the military. Each branch will have to devise a plan for implementing the change, and if representatives want exceptions, they will have to seek them.
Naturally, any service member would have to meet all of the standards required for any position, and this ruling does not give women any advantage over their male colleagues. It will put them on a level field, and open up career opportunities that are not available to officers whose resumes lack combat experience.
This change means Congress should abolish the requirement that young men register with the Selective Service. An all-volunteer military with ample troops from both genders certainly negates the need for that.
Today women make up nearly 15 percent of the nation's active duty forces -- tomorrow it will be more -- and it has been a mistake to limit the opportunities of so many who already are capably serving their country.
Although the Pentagon is allowing three years for putting the new policy into effect, the change, which will bolster the military, can't come too soon.