LUIS MARTINEX, ABC News - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will lift a long-standing ban on women serving in combat, according to senior defense officials. The ensuing administrative process could mean women will serve in front line combat roles, but not until 2016.
The move, first reported by the Associated Press, was not expected this week, although there has been a concerted effort by the Obama administration to further open up the Armed Forces to women.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended in January to Secretary Panetta that the direct combat exclusion rule should be lifted.
"I can confirm media reports that the secretary and the chairman are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military," said a senior Defense Department official. "This policy change will initiate a process whereby the services will develop plans to implement this decision, which was made by the secretary of defense upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
Women have been officially prohibited from serving in combat since a 1994 rule that barred them from serving in ground combat units. That does not mean they have been immune from danger or from combat.
As Martha Raddatz reported in 2009, women have served in support positions on and off the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, where war is waged on street corners and in markets, putting them at equal risk. Hundreds of thousands of women deployed with the military to those two war zones over the past decade. Hundreds have died.
Read that 2009 report HERE.
Panetta's decision will set a January 2016 deadline for the military service branches to argue that there are military roles that should remain closed to women.
In February 2012 the Defense Department opened up 14,500 positions to women that had previously been limited to men and lifted a rule that prohibited women from living with combat units.
Panetta also directed the services to examine ways to open more combat roles to women. However the ban on direct combat positions has remained in place.
Advocates for equality in the services will be pleased. On Capitol Hill today retired Chief Master Sergeant Cindy McNally, a victim of sexual assault in the military, said placing women in combat roles would help equalize the services and actually cut down on sexual assaults, which have emerged as a major problem in the military.
"For larger solutions we need to look at integrating women completely into the armed force," she said. "Remove the combat exclusion policy. Then we will be a fully integrated force. Being able to do the job should be the standard, not whether you are male or female. I believe that as leaders we took our eye off the ball. We enabled a climate where our troops became vulnerable."
In September 2011 the Obama administration ended the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that had prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military after Congress repealed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Law in December, 2010.