As of last year, more than 800 women had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more 130 had died.
This is despite the military's ban on women in combat. A 1994 Pentagon rule restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles.
Leon Panetta announced on Thursday that he is lifting the ban. This will open up hundreds of thousands of additional front-line jobs to women.
The New York Times reported that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to Panetta on Jan. 9, stating that the armed service chiefs all agreed that "the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service."
Women have been filling combat roles, but the military has not recognized that. Serving in combat positions is crucial to career advancement and the military has been unfairly holding women back by not acknowledging what they have been doing. The women will have to meet the same standards as the men before serving in combat.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the change reflects the reality of 21st century military operations.
Lifting the ban will also help change the culture of a male-dominated institution in which women have long complained about discrimination and a high incidence of sexual assault. The ban on women in combat is obsolete. This is a historic step for recognizing the role that women have played, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation.