Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter's decision this week to allow women to serve in all the nation's combat units marked a milestone in the U.S. military's efforts toward making its forces more inclusive and representative of the nation. It was also an overdue recognition of the fact that women in the military have long served under fire in the nation's wars, past and present, and that their service has earned them the right to the same opportunities for promotion and career advancement as men.

The announcement opens the way for female soldiers to serve in the nation's most elite military units, including the Army Special Forces, the Navy SEALS and other Special Operations units, where eligibility from now on will be based purely on ability, not gender. "There will be no exceptions," Mr. Carter said. "This means that, as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before." Mr. Carter instituted the new policy after two female soldiers became the first women ever to graduate from the Army's elite Ranger school.

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Throughout its history, the U.S. military has struggled to match the demographic make-up of its fighting forces with the promise of America's democratic ideals. African-Americans, for example, have fought in every U.S. war from the revolutionary era on, yet for most of that time they were considered incapable of performing combat roles reserved for whites. Despite the bravery under fire exhibited by black units such as the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which saw extensive service during the American Civil War, or the 332nd Fighter Group, which distinguished itself in the skies over Europe during World War II, it was not until 1948, when President Harry Truman issued an executive order ending racial segregation in the military, that blacks were finally allowed to participate in military operations on an equal basis with whites.

Until four years ago, the U.S. military barred openly gay and lesbian volunteers from enlisting in the armed services — notwithstanding the evident hypocrisy of it's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which welcomed their service as long as they lied about who they were. Gay and lesbian soldiers lived under the constant threat of exposure and dishonorable discharge if their secret was discovered, which hardly contributed to the maintenance of group morale and "unit cohesion" the policy was supposed to foster. And when the military finally repealed that discriminatory rule in 2011, the service's own studies showed that the change had virtually no impact whatsoever on the combat readiness or effectiveness of the nation's armed forces.

Women, likewise, have served under fire in the nation's wars despite official classifications that traditionally confined them to non-combat support rules such as nurses, aircraft spotters and clerical workers. But those kinds of distinctions are increasingly inapplicable to the conditions faced by the women soldiers involved in counterinsurgency operations such as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where front lines are continually shifting and units can come under attack anywhere. Regardless of how they are classified, female troops are as likely as their male counterparts to find themselves in a firefight in which the distinction between combat and non-combat roles quickly becomes irrelevant.

The reality is that women are already fighting alongside men in those wars. Yet the Pentagon doesn't officially recognize their combat experience, which remains crucial to advancement in the military. That will change now that female troops will be eligible to fill any job in the military for which they are qualified. Not every woman has the physical and emotional stamina to become an Army Ranger or an Air Force fighter pilot, but neither do most men. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama was right to praise the new policy as a historic step forward. "One of the qualities that makes America's armed forces the best in the world is that we draw on the talents and skills of our people," he said. In a volunteer force that needs to draw on the strengths of everyone willing to serve, opening the military on an equal basis with men can only make the nation stronger.

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