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Editorial: Women-in-combat change acknowledges reality

Pentagon Chief Leon Panetta has removed the ban

Pentagon Chief Leon Panetta has removed the ban on women serving in combat roles. The ban removal was reportedly recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturning a 1994 rule keeping women out of ground combat units. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The U.S. military crossed the Rubicon yesterday, lifting its ban on women in combat. It was a historic moment.

After inching in the right direction for years, military policy finally caught up with the reality of modern warfare. More than 250,000 women have been "in combat" in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, because in those theaters there were no clear lines separating the front from the rear. One hundred fifty-two servicewomen have lost their lives in those wars. More than 900 have been wounded.

From now on, valiant women will have their roles in combat recognized when vying for promotion. That's important. In an organization built to fight, combat experience is a key to career advancement.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the president's nominee to be the next defense secretary, must see to it that the new policy ending gender discrimination is implemented quickly and smoothly. Goldbricking should not be tolerated. He should make sure he has women deputies at the Department of Defense and then put a few of them in charge of overseeing the transition. They're likely to have a vested interest in pushing the pace of change for the more than 200,000 women among the 1.4 million active duty military personnel, and those who join the ranks in the years to come.

In 2012 the military opened about 14,500 positions to women, including jobs such as intelligence officer and mechanic. The order Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed Thursday went much further. It rescinded the 1994 policy that prohibited assigning women to small ground combat units. It will open more than 230,000 additional jobs to women who meet existing standards, many in Army and Marine infantry units and potentially even in elite special forces units.

The reversal of policy was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which signals that people at the highest level of the military recognize the outdated directive needed to be scrapped. The transformation won't be completed overnight, but each branch of the service -- the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force -- must now develop plans allowing women to seek combat positions.

Each branch will have until 2016 to make the case if it wants to continue barring women from some jobs. That latitude to carve out exceptions is important, if they can be justified. But so is the key shift of the burden of proof from women seeking inclusion to those seeking to exclude them. The bar should be extremely high.

And from this day on there should be no more situations like the one that prompted Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, three other servicewomen and the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the Department of Defense last year. Hegar was an Air National Guard search-and-rescue pilot in Afghanistan in 2009, inserting medics and flying out the wounded, when her helicopter was downed by enemy fire. Once on the ground she took and returned fire and was wounded. Although decorated, she couldn't seek combat leadership positions because the Pentagon didn't officially recognize her experience as combat.

The era of official gender discrimination in the military ended Thursday. It was a proud day for the United States.