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Panetta announces combat jobs previously closed to women will open

In a May 9, 2012 file photo, Capt. Sara Rodriguez, 26, of the 101st Airborne Division, carries a litter of sandbags during the Expert Field Medical Badge training at Fort Campbell, Ky. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service, defense officials said Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Kristin M. Hall, File)

Letting women join in on combat is a historic change, one which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

Allowing women to serve in combat roles will strengthen the U.S. military’s ability to win wars, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday, shortly before his official announcement of the landmark change.

While women have served in combat positions for over 10 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, not all positions have been open to both genders.

Laura Browder, an author and professor at University of Richmond told Seattle’s Morning News she’s heard a lot of arguments that women just aren’t capable of doing the job. But it’s only a matter of time before we see women taking on these other combat jobs and achieving the results expected of those positions. “I think that just as in the world of sports we’ve seen women achieving more and more over the years and decades.”

Related: Service members weigh in on women in combat

According to Browder, in just 50 years, impossible roles for women have become possible as expectations change. “In the military that’s going to be true for women, as well.”

These women will hardly be the first of their kind in the military. Though, according to Browder, it will be good that they won’t have the added pressure of being the military’s pioneers, like the women who were a part of the gender integration at the Virginia Military Institute in the 1990s.

“I talked to one of the first VMI women and for her it was just an extremely tough situation. There was so much pressure – she washed out. But that’s not as true anymore.”

Some soldiers would wash out when they can’t meet the physical requirements for their job – and for CBS military analyst and retired army Col. Jeff McCausland, that’s still a concern.

While someone may not, because of physiological reasons, develop the upper body strength to free lift a 100-pound artillery shell, the units that have been closed to women in combat have even more trying physical standards.

“There is a question as to whether some physical things you can do or cannot do, male or female,” said McCausland.

But regardless of the additional training, Browder said that she’s heard from multiple women that combat is the real test. “An army captain told me, ‘When you’re a soldier, combat is the real test, and it’s as though you’ve read books about riding a bicycle and studied it, but never got to get on a bike.'”

It’s not as though women have never seen combat – if Panetta lifts the ban on the women in combat, it will be only a few remaining specialties. But that very small limit has been an easily understood reason for women not registering for the draft.

Browder said it would be very difficult to justify not asking women to register for the draft. “That said, we haven’t had a draft in a very long time and I haven’t talked to anybody who has seen the draft coming back anytime soon.”

The announcement follows disturbing news about sexual assaults in the military – mainly the Air Force. A disturbing number of reports of sexual assault were recorded last year even as the military worked to curb misconduct in the wake of a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas.

But as women are integrated into more combat roles Browder thinks it will cause fewer issues. “One of the things we’re seeing in that report, isn’t necessarily that assaults have gone up, but that women are being freer to step forward.”

What’s actually happening in the military has been happening over many professions according to Browder.

“When I started off as a professor 20 years ago, sexual harassment in universities was much more common than it is now, when there are many more women in positions of leadership, and I think that’s true of many professions. I think it’s certainly going to be true of the military.”

In her research, Browder said that she talked to many women who have been in the military for over 20 years and they often speak about some of the changes they have seen taking place over the course of their careers. The awareness of the issue grows “and as women and men become less tolerant of sexual abuse, it’s going to go down.”

Panetta announced at a Pentagon news conference that more than 230,000 battlefront posts – many in Army and Marine infantry units and in potentially elite commando jobs – are now open to women. It will be up to the military service chiefs to recommend and defend whether women should be excluded from any of those more demanding and deadly positions, such as Navy SEALs or the Army’s Delta Force.

The change won’t take place overnight: Service chiefs will have to develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions, a senior military official said. Some jobs may open as soon as this year, while assessments for others, such as special operations forces, may take longer. The services will have until January 2016 to make a case to that some positions should remain closed to women.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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