WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will soon announce the end of a 19-year ban on women in combat, according to a senior defense official, a sweeping change that appears to recognize the reality that female troops have experienced since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the timing, said that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military.”
The official added that the announcement, which could come Thursday, “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.”
Like the elimination of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibiting gay men and women from serving openly, the decision represents another far-reaching reversal of military policy and is emblematic of the changing mores and culture in the American armed services.
About 200,000 women are among the 1.4 million active-duty personnel currently serving in the military.
The policy change also comes as Panetta is about to step down as secretary after several decades in government, and his White House-chosen replacement, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, is about to face Senate confirmation hearings.
The decision follows a lawsuit filed in November challenging the legitimacy of the ban. The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of four female service members. All four had served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, and two had received Purple Hearts for injuries sustained on duty.
Reversing the ban, said ACLU senior staff attorney Ariela Migdal in an email, means “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.”
The lawsuit was challenging a ruling banning women from “being well forward on the battlefield,” a definition that didn’t always make sense in Iraq and Afghanistan, where fighting took place outside of a traditional frontline.
In reality, the policy has been a ban almost in name only. But the danger that female troops faced only came to the attention of many Americans early during the Iraq war when Jessica Lynch, a private first class and Army truck driver, was captured and held hostage.
Almost 2 percent of the nearly 4,000 military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq were women, according to Military Times.
“We’ve seen how the realities of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have blurred the lines of combat and service members’ roles and exposure to danger,” said Joyce Wessel Raezor, executive director of National Military Family Association, a nonprofit group that aids military families. “Significant numbers of women have been injured or killed in these conflicts over the last 11-plus years. I would guess their families would tell you those women were ‘in combat.’”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was quick to voice support of the new policy in a statement: “It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations.”
But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a nonprofit group that studies military personnel policies and opposes women in combat, said the change was “irresponsible.”
“For the same reason you don’t see women in the NFL, you shouldn’t see women in combat units,” she said. “Women are not the equal of men.”
One argument against the ban was the idea that while women face death or injury in modern wars, the ban also denied many military career fields, necessary training and hurt their chances at promotions.
The ACLU’s Migdal also said that commanders often found their hands tied in trying to figure out how to get needed skills into dangerous areas and yet obey the ban. In October, for instance, an attack by a Taliban suicide bomber in Khost, Afghanistan, killed three American service members, including Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson of Raeford, N.C.
Still, Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said putting women into “frontline combat positions is a very delicate matter.” While details of how to make this decision work haven’t yet been worked out, he said, “The right process seemed more incremental, perhaps starting with the special forces.”
However the policy is carried out, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that lifting the ban is “an historic step for equality. . . . From the streets of Iraqi cities to rural villages in Afghanistan . . . thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side by side with their fellow male service members.”
Donald Bradley of The Kansas City Star contributed.