WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formally lifted the military’s ban on women in combat Thursday, saying that not every woman would become a combat soldier but that every woman deserved the chance to try.
They said that the new policy was in many ways an affirmation of what was already occurring on the battlefield, where women have found themselves in combat during the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that it was essential that the military offer fully equal opportunities to both women and men.
“They’re fighting and dying together, and the time has come for our policies to reflect that reality,” Panetta said at a packed Pentagon news conference.
Dempsey, like Panetta, said that his views had evolved as he came into contact with women in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he first got to Baghdad in 2003 as a division commander, he said, he got into a Humvee for his first trip out of his base.
“I asked the driver, you know, who he was and where he was from, and I slapped the turret gunner on the leg, and I said, ‘Who are you?’ ” Dempsey recalled. “And she leaned down and said, ‘I’m Amanda.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK so a female turret gunner is protecting a division commander.’ ”
Panetta and Dempsey said they had worked together for more than a year on lifting the ban and had regularly briefed President Obama. They described him as highly supportive of the decision but not intimately involved in the process.
In December, Pentagon officials said, Panetta and the Joint Chiefs reached a tentative agreement that women should be permitted in combat. Panetta thought about it during the holidays and returned early this month to receive a letter dated Jan. 9 from Dempsey strongly recommending the change.
In the most vocal official opposition to the changes, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is scheduled to become the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, warned that some in Congress may seek legislation to limit the combat jobs open to women.
“I want everyone to know that the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which I am the ranking member, will have a period to provide oversight and review,” Inhofe said in a statement. “During that time, if necessary, we will be able to introduce legislation to stop any changes we believe to be detrimental to our fighting forces and their capabilities. I suspect there will be cases where legislation becomes necessary.”
Pentagon officials said that the different services would have until May 15 to submit plans for carrying out the new policy, but that the military wanted to move as quickly as possible to open up combat positions to women. Military officials said that there were more than 200,000 jobs now potentially open to women in specialties such as infantry, armor, artillery, and elite Special Operations commando units like the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.
If a service determines that a specialty should not be open to women, Pentagon officials said that representatives of the service must make the case to the defense secretary by January 2016.
Officials said repeatedly that they would not lower the physical standards for women in rigorous combat jobs like the infantry, but they said they would review standards for all the military specialties in coming months and potentially change them to keep up with, for example, advances in equipment and weaponry.