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Democrats hailed the news Wednesday that Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta plans to lift the ban on women serving in combat.
A formal announcement is expected Thursday from the Pentagon, according to a senior defense official.
Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a concise written statement: “I support it. It reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, R-N.Y., a member of the Armed Services Committee, also was effusive, noting that she helped insert language into the fiscal 2013 defense authorization law (PL 112-239) requiring a feasibility study on lifting the ban.
“This is a proud day for our country and the step we need to formally recognize the brave women who are already fighting and dying for our country shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers in uniform on the frontlines,” she said in a written statement. “This decision finally opens the door for more qualified women to excel in our military and advance their careers, and obtain all of the benefits they have earned.”
A senior defense official explained that the 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.” The news was reported first by the Associated Press.
House Democrats also praised the decision by Panetta, who is expected to step down once the Senate confirms his successor, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.
“I have been a firm believer in removing the archaic combat exclusion policy for many years,” Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a senior member of the House Armed Services panel, said. “I am happy to hear the secretary will be making significant changes as part of an effort to expand opportunities for women in the military.”
Congress ordered a review of women’s roles in combat in the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill (PL 111-383), which followed a 2011 Military Leadership Diversity Commission report that recommended lifting all combat restrictions on women. The diversity commission was created as part of the fiscal 2009 defense authorization law (PL 110-417).
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee suggested Wednesday that he might support the change.
“After a decade of critical military service in hostile environments, women have demonstrated a wide range of capabilities in combat operations and we welcome this review,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said in a written statement.
Several Republicans, including the top member on the Senate Armed Services panel , James M. Inhofe, were angry that Congress was not briefed before the move was reported in the press.
“It is unacceptable that information on the Defense Department’s plans related to women in combat was leaked prior to Congress being briefed,” Inhofe said in a written statement Wednesday. “I do not believe this will be a broad opening of combat roles for women, because as the 2012 report indicated, there are ‘serious practical barriers which must be resolved so that the department can maximize the safety and privacy of all military members while maintaining military readiness.’”
Inhofe said he has supported previous expansions of women’s roles in the military, but several Republicans have voiced broader opposition to suggestions about relaxing the ban in the past.