Women in the Army and Marines will no longer be banned from combat roles under new guidelines from departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a combat veteran herself, hailed the change as “historic” in a statement on Wednesday.
“I have had the honor of serving with incredibly talented female soldiers who, if given the opportunity, would serve as great assets in our ground combat units,” Gabbard said. “It is crucial that we shed light on the great value and opportunities that these women bring.”
Panetta’s policy would reverse a 1994 policy prohibiting women in the Army and Marines from thousands of ground combat jobs, a restriction that critics described as a “brass ceiling” that kept women out of prestigious positions that were often jumping off points for career officers.
Close to 150 female soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post’s tally, where front lines are often undefined. Female veterans complain that the distinction over what is and isn’t combat role is also blurry, since some women have been attached to combat units in non-combat positions to evade the ban. An official commission tasked with studying diversity in the military recommended ending the ban in 2011, in part due to the increasingly vague distinctions between roles in the nation’s recent conflicts.
“There are some roles that women have unofficially been serving in for years now, roles everyone frankly knows are combat roles but haven’t been designated as such to allow women,” Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network, told TPM. “[Opening up] those will be likely uncontroversial, but other positions will be highly fought over.”
Defenders of combat restrictions for women have cited concerns about unit cohesion. Rick Santorum suggested during the 2012 presidential campaign that soldiers might let their “emotions” get the best of them, causing men to compromise their mission by going out of their way to protect women.
“So now we’re going to ask our officers to send women to their deaths? Is that honorable?” Michael Goldfarb, a former spokesman for John McCain’s presidential campaign, said on Twitter.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.