Panetta Formally Announces Lift On Combat Ban For Women

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The U.S. military is making one of the biggest policy changes in its history.

The Defense Department is lifting its ban on women serving in combat. Though the news was released Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the formal announcement Thursday.

This will make women eligible to serve as infantrymen on combat patrol and even in elite special operations units like the Navy SEALS.

Panetta stressed that the qualifications to become a combat soldier would not be reduced; aspiring women would have to meet the same standards their male counterparts do. The defense secretary said that not everyone who tried would meet the qualifications to become part of the infantry, but that everyone deserves a chance.

For many female soldiers, the change in policy only legitimizes what they are already doing; with no true front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of female vets have found themselves under fire and fighting back alongside male soldiers.. Combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have already cost more than 130 women their lives and left more than 800 wounded.

Panetta's order will open 200,000 more jobs to women, primarily in the Army and Marines. Combat experience is considered a prerequisite for a promotion into the top jobs, and many women soldiers have argued that they haven't been allowed to rise as high in the military as male soldiers due to the ban on combat. The services will have until May to draw up a plan for opening all units to women and until the end of 2015 to actually implement it.

If the military wants to keep a unit like Navy SEALS or Army Green Berets off limits to women, they will have to justify it to the Secretary of Defense.

President Barack Obama says allowing women to serve in combat marks another step toward the country's founding ideals of fairness and equality.

Obama says in a written statement he expressed strong support for the decision.

Obama says he is confident the decision -- coupled with the recent repeal of the ban on gays in the military -- will strengthen the U.S. military.

The president says, "Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger, with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love. "