Panetta: Women to be Integrated into Combat in 'Responsible, Measured, Coherent' Way

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters today that the repeal of restrictions on women serving in combat meets his priority "to remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform."

"Our nation was built on the premise of the citizen soldier. In our democracy, I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation. And every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity," Panetta said at a Pentagon press conference with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"It's clear to all of us that women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military's mission of defending the nation. Women represent 15 percent of the force, over 200,000. They're serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield. The fact is that they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission," Panetta continued, adding 152 women in uniform have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Every time I visited the war zone, every time I've met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I've been impressed with the fact that everyone -- everyone, men and women alike -- everyone is committed to doing the job. They're fighting and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality."

Panetta said the change will take place "in a responsible, measured, and a coherent way."

Dempsey said integration will happen "in a way that enhances opportunity for everyone."

"This means setting clear standards of performance for all occupations based on what it actually takes to do the job. It also means ensuring that these standards are gender neutral in occupations that will open to women," the chairman said. "As we introduce to women to previously closed occupations, we must make sure that there are a sufficient number of females entering the career field and already assigned to the related commands and leadership positions in order to sustain success over time."

Dempsey said units will begin opening to women this year. "They will continue to assess, develop and validate general neutral standards so that we can start assigning personnel to previously closed occupations. And they will take the time needed to do the work without compromising the principles I just mentioned," he said. "In fact, adherence to the principles may lead to an assessment that some specialties and ratings should remain exceptions."

President Obama in a statement today called the move "another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens."

"This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military," he said. "...Earlier today I called Secretary of Defense Panetta to express my strong support for this decision, which will strengthen our military, enhance our readiness, and be another step toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals of fairness and equality."

"Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love."