Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will end the long-standing prohibition on women serving in direct combat, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, opening hundreds of thousands of military jobs previously closed to female service members.
Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will announce the end of the so-called combat exclusion policy Thursday, officials said. The move is expected to take years to implement fully.
Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt welcomed the decision.
The Gaithersburg reservist, who sued Panetta last year to lift the Clinton-era ban, said the decision would be good for her — and better for the armed forces.
"It's a great move," said Hunt, a member of the Riverdale-based 450th Civil Affairs Battalion who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's going to allow each service branch to put people into the positions they need to accomplish their mission."
The decision by Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary, follows more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where female service members have increasingly been exposed to the fighting.
Of the more than 280,000 women who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 150 have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded.
Officially, women have been barred from serving in infantry, artillery, tank and other units that engage in direct combat with the enemy. But the rule has not stopped commanders from assigning women to work alongside the men who staff those units.
In Afghanistan, Hunt was tapped to accompany male soldiers on village raids, so they would have a female to search any women or girls they found.
Not having trained with the teams as an official member, she says, made the work more dangerous.
Opening combat jobs to women, who make up 14 percent of the nation's 1.4 million active-duty service members, is the second major shift in the makeup of the armed forces in as many years. The Pentagon ended the long-standing prohibition on openly gay service members in 2011.
Hunt, who earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, was one of four servicewomen who sued Panetta in November.
The women, who had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, contended that the ban was unconstitutional and outdated, and was preventing women from gaining the kinds of experience that helped their male counterparts earn promotions.
ACLU attorney Ariela Migdal, who is representing the servicewomen, expressed "cautious optimism" over Panetta's announcement. Now, she said, "qualified women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their brothers-in-arms, which they actually already have been doing with valor and distinction."
She added, "We hope that it will be implemented fairly and quickly so that servicewomen can receive the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts."
It was unclear what role, if any, the lawsuit played in Panetta's decision. President Barack Obama has nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, as Panetta's successor.
Under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon had begun in recent years to expand opportunities for women beyond the traditional support roles to which they had been limited.
Last year, the Army opened about 14,500 jobs previously off-limits to women, including intelligence and personnel officers and artillery and tank mechanics. The Marine Corps allowed women to attend its grueling Infantry Officer Course and began assigning women to train in certain combat-related jobs with infantry, artillery, tank and other units for testing purposes.
But those were small steps compared with the announcement expected Thursday, which could open about 238,000 jobs, most in the Army and Marines, the "tip of the spear" of the U.S. military.
The services will be directed to develop plans to implement the change by May 15, according to reports. They will have until January 2016 to declare exceptions for roles that they believe should remain off-limits to women.
Sen. Ben Cardin said Panetta's decision would give women "an equal opportunity to serve their nation, earn promotions and move up through the ranks as their male counterparts."
"Yet another glass ceiling is about to be shattered," the Maryland Democrat said. "America's military is the greatest in the world, and it has been made stronger today."
Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and head of the Service Women's Action Network, said her decision to leave the Marine Corps in 2004 was due in part to the combat exclusion policy.
"I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches," said Bhagwati, who called the decision a "historic moment." She added, "I didn't expect it to come so soon."
Hunt said she didn't know how the policy would affect her, or whether she would seek a new assignment.
"I'm really still on the excitement of hearing I was perhaps involved in something that changed military policy for the better," she said. "I had always hoped Secretary Panetta would take this away, without becoming adversaries in court. We were prepared for it, but I'm glad it didn't come to that."
Reuters contributed to this article.