Women have been fighting for the right to serve in combat positions for decades. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta handed them a sudden -- and nuanced -- victory on Thursday.
Mr. Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed a memo authorizing the change at the Pentagon. They said the change was prompted by the valiant efforts of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of Thursday, 152 women had died and another 958 had been wounded. Many received awards for their service.
"If they can do the job, if they can meet the standards, if they can meet the qualifications that are involved here, there is no reason why they shouldn't have a chance," Mr. Panetta said. "That's just a fundamental belief of mine, and I think it's a fundamental belief of the American people."
Each branch of the military must supply the secretary of defense with a report, which will be presented in May, outlining how it will adapt to the lifting of the ban. The branches have until 2016 to apply to keep certain positions closed to women.
"The services will bear the responsibility for providing the thorough analysis needed to articulate what's best needed for the armed forces," Gen. Dempsey said when describing how the exemptions would work. "We all wear the same uniform, and we all fire the same weapon."
Service members, legislators and citizens have been debating for ages whether women should be allowed to serve in combat roles.
Proponents of the change argued that women were already serving in combat roles because the changing nature of warfare made traditional battle lines obsolete. No longer could women hide behind an arbitrary line. Improvised explosive devices were hidden virtually everywhere. Female Marines were needed to communicate with women in Iraq and Afghanistan and to search them for weapons because local cultural norms prevented men from interacting with them in the same ways.
Opponents argued largely that they were philosophically opposed to having women serve in combat roles, that they worried their presence would cause the military to lower its physical fitness standards or that the women wouldn't have privacy when working close to male soldiers.
"I did not think it would come in my lifetime," said Col. Sharon M. Johnson, who is stationed at Pope Air Field Base in North Carolina and worked for a time at the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon. "I was surprised and delighted, and I think now the hard work starts for everybody. You don't create a culture overnight."
Col. Johnson, who has extensively studied the combat exclusion policy, predicted that it could take five to 10 years for having women serving in combat positions to seem normal.
In a research paper she produced while working on her master's degree at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., Col. Johnson wrote that the combat exclusion policy "places commanders in a policy paradox -- they can keep a valuable asset, trained women, under their command out of harm's way, in compliance with service policy; or they fight our nation's wars with the best qualified personnel under their command."
Women who have recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan described vastly different experiences depending upon the branch they served in and their commanders' interpretations of the policy, which appears to have been enforced in varying degrees.
That was true among the four women who sued Mr. Panetta in November in hopes of having the combat exclusion policy rescinded.
Capt. Zoe Bedell, who deployed to Afghanistan twice while serving in the Marine Corps, worked on female engagement teams, units designed to interact with local women and children. During her second deployment, from September 2010 through April 2011, she coordinated assignments from several of the units. She said she occasionally encountered supervisors who were hesitant to send the female teams out because they worried they would break the policy.
"People had different standards," she said. "They're making their own rules."
When they did head out, the teams had to return to the base at regular intervals, she said, because if they spent too much time next to the combat units, they would violate the combat exclusion policy.
Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was commissioned in the Air Force and served three tours over two deployments in Afghanistan, where she worked as a pilot on medevac missions. She described a time when she was injured after enemy fire struck her helicopter. While the men in her unit loaded patients into another helicopter, she said she alone fired at enemy fighters because she was the only person who could spot them.
Stories like hers have become more common and have been told increasingly often to politicians.
President Barack Obama issued a statement on Thursday saying: "This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic services of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today's military. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, including more than 150 who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan -- patriots whose sacrifices show that valor knows no gender."
Meanwhile, those who have closely monitored the changing roles that women play in the military are waiting patiently to see exactly how many new jobs open up to women.
"It's evolutionary," Francoise Bonnell, director of the U.S. Army Women's Museum, said of the pace of the change. "I think it's one of those changes where in 20 years, we'll look back and say, 'Wow, it was a big change at the time, but we've learned a lot from it.' "