Women in combat: Full integration expected by 2016 - KMSP-TV

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Women in combat: Full integration expected by 2016

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WASHINGTON (FOX NEWS) -

Departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday officially announced a major change in the makeup of the military: soon the front lines of combat could be co-ed.

Lifting the ban on women in combat could open as many as 238,000 front line posts to women -- mostly in the Army and Marines.

"Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military's mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles," Panetta said. "The department's goal in rescinding the rule is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."

Women currently make up approximately 15 percent, or nearly 202,400, of the U.S. military's 1.4 million active personnel. Over the course of the past decade, more than 280,000 women have deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This is a major milestone for our women in uniform, opening up doors that had previously been shut," said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. "We thank all of our service members for their sacrifice and commitment to our country."

Some combat jobs may open to women as soon as this year. Assessments for others -- like special operations forces -- may take longer. Full integration is expected by 2016.

A report ordered by Congress in 2009 called for greater diversity in the military's leadership so it will better reflect the racial, ethnic and gender mix in the armed forces and in American society.

The report said, "despite undeniable successes...the armed forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve."

An inability to serve in combat units was cited as a major barrier for advancement among women in the military, because promotion and job opportunities have favored those with battlefield leadership credentials.

In February, the Pentagon announced a policy change that opened 14,000 new job opportunities to women in the military including tank mechanic and field artillery radar operator. 99 percent of positions in the Air Force and 88 percent of active-duty jobs in the Navy were already available to women prior to that policy change.

But as many applaud the equal opportunities for women, critics say the policy change will be harmful.

"To summarize thirty years of studies and reports, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers survive in a direct ground combat environment," said Eliane Donnelly, a conservative activist and advocate for preserving traditional culture in the U.S. military.

Writing in the Marine Corps Gazette, "Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal," Marine Capt. Katie Petronio argued last year against putting women in combat.

"I broke down, and had muscle atrophy and weight loss at a much faster rate than -- and noticeable rate -- than my male Marines," Petronio said. "I found myself tripping constantly, my legs buckling, falling during firefights."

The women in combat ban has been in place since 1994. Top military chiefs have until January 2016 to seek exceptions to specific units.

"I just hope that we would keep the same standard requirements for screening and eligibility to be a member particularly in some of our elite military units," Sen. John McCain said.

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