Sen. Ben Cardin said Panetta's decision would give women "an equal opportunity to serve their nation, earn promotions and move up through the ranks as their male counterparts."

"Yet another glass ceiling is about to be shattered," the Maryland Democrat said. "America's military is the greatest in the world, and it has been made stronger today."

Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and head of the Service Women's Action Network, said her decision to leave the Marine Corps in 2004 was due in part to the combat exclusion policy.

"I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches," said Bhagwati, who called the decision a "historic moment." She added, "I didn't expect it to come so soon."

Hunt said she didn't know how the policy would affect her, or whether she would seek a new assignment.

"I'm really still on the excitement of hearing I was perhaps involved in something that changed military policy for the better," she said. "I had always hoped Secretary Panetta would take this away, without becoming adversaries in court. We were prepared for it, but I'm glad it didn't come to that."

Reuters contributed to this article.

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