It was expected that outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would announce on Thursday (January 24) that the ban has been lifted on female service members serving in combat roles. But what surprised many observers and female enlistees was that the decision came after the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
According to the Washington Post, the news that the Joint Chiefs had signed off on the change surprised a number of female veteran activists who said they assumed the military's upper brass was still not fully on board with allowing women to vie for the most physically difficult and dangerous positions.
The announcement was welcomed by Katie Dexter, 30, an Army Reserve veteran, who currently works as the director of operations for the New York-based veteran's employment organization Hire Purpose.
"There's been a lot of talk in the last two months about opening those combat support roles to women," she told MTV News on Thursday (January 24), just hours after Panetta's news conference. "But it was a bit of a shock when it came out yesterday that all women can serve in combat roles ... It went from they would start letting women into combat positions to just opening the doors."
The Army and Marines will reveal their plans to open most jobs to women by May 15 and the Post reported that a senior defense official said the Pentagon expects to open "many positions" to women this year. Senior commanders will have until January 2016 to ask for exceptions.
Dexter served as a water treatment specialist in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, Iraq, in 2004, on a forward operating base that was routinely hit with mortars, rockets and bombs. And while women were not allowed to serve in combat positions then, due to how stretched thin the military was while conducting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said many did serve in combat support roles.
"I not only did my job on humanitarian mission, but I was tasked to go out on convoy missions on a gun truck to places things needed to go because there were not enough bodies in the military to take on all that," she said.
She's posted on Facebook about the irony that the military is legalizing something that's been going on for more than a decade. But making it official on Thursday will definitely mean a change for enlisted women.
"There are only a few four-star generals who are women and it will open up that avenue, especially if you're an officer and you want to advance to general rank," she said. "It's opening that door and saying, 'we will open these positions to you and see if you can meet the requirements."
Panetta's announcement marked the overturning of a 1994 Pentagon rule that restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry and other such combat roles, even though, as Dexter noted, women have inevitably found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 20,000 have served.
Women were previously prohibited from assignments to ground combat units, but because of the two-war front many took on roles as medics, military police and intelligence officers that sometimes had them attached to such units.
The Post reported that the fact that women have excelled in de facto front-line roles in Iraq and Afghanistan has disproven old concerns about the potential hazards of men and women serving in close quarters in combat.
"The reality is that so many women have been, in effect, in combat or quasi-combat," said Senate Armed Services Committee head Senator Carl Levin. "This is catching up with reality." Overall, women make up around 14 percent of active-duty military and 152 female troops have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"This leads to a path where there is no glass ceiling in any part of the military," said Paul Rieckhoff, a U.S. Army veteran Iraq war veteran and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American. "It won't juts lead to combat roles, but to roles in any part of the military that men are in. It is an incredibly historic move, as historic as the repeal of don't ask, don't' tell or the racial integration of the military." But, like those landmarks, he cautioned, it won't happen overnight.
Starlyn Lara, an Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq twice and who now works as women's veteran coordinator for the non-profit veteran service organization Swords to Plowshares said, at the least, the new rules create a more "established and recognized" gender equality across the board in the military.
"I'm really excited about it," said Lara, 36, a former human resources specialist who left the service in 2007 after nearly 12 years in. "I'm disappointed that I'm no longer in because how is the perfect time to realize this."
Though she joined with no desire to see combat, Lara said the change will absolutely maximize the opportunities available to women in the military. "It means they'll be looking at everyone qualified for a promotion on the same level," she said. "The idea that my boyfriend's younger sister, who just completed a year in Afghanistan as a combat medic has any role open to her regardless of gender is so exciting."