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 experienced by female troops since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the timing, said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin 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 today, "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, which barred gays from serving openly, the decision represents another reversal of military policy and is emblematic of the changing culture of the armed forces.
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About 200,000 women are among the 1.4 million active-duty personnel now serving in the military.
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 American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of four female service members, all of whom had served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Two received Purple Hearts for injuries.
In an email, ACLU senior staff attorney Ariela Migdal said reversing the ban 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 a traditional front line.
In reality, the policy has been a ban almost in name only. But the danger faced by female troops didn't come to the attention of many Americans until early in the Iraq war when Pfc. Jessica Lynch, an Army truck driver, was captured.
Almost 2 percent of the nearly 4,000 military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq were women.
"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 Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit 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 for the new policy, saying: "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 is "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."
Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert with the Brookings Institution, said putting women in "front-line combat positions is a very delicate matter." While details of how to enact this decision haven't been worked out, he said, "the right process seemed more incremental, perhaps starting with the special forces."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said lifting the ban is a "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."