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Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that women can officially serve on the front lines for the first time in U.S. history. This means big shifts in the demographics of the United States’ active-duty military as well as changes to physical fitness assessments for enlisted men and women.

What’s the Deal?

Lifting the military’s ban on women in combat roles could open up more than 230,000 jobs to women in the Army and Marine Corps, including positions on the front lines and in elite commando units. The move overturns a 1994 rule that prohibited women from serving in combat operations.

Prior to the repeal, the Army, which constitutes the military’s largest fighting force, excluded women from nearly 25 percent of active-duty roles (namely infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers, and special operations). But despite the ban, women have already been serving in some combat positions, including 292,000 jobs piloting warplanes and working on ships in combat areas. And even though women technically haven’t been allowed to participate in ground combat, many have been doing so throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Chalk this up to the nature of modern conflicts, which have necessitated that female medics, military police, and intelligence officers sometimes be attached to front-line units. But despite serving on the front lines, women’s “unofficial” combat status has excluded them from professional development opportunities.

The move to repeal the ban follows a decision made in February 2012 to open up 14,000 combat positions to women in the U.S. military, including jobs as tank mechanics and frontline intelligence officers. Women currently make up 14 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active personnel, but this number could increase once the ban is lifted. Thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan, 152 women have died from combat or noncombat causes and 958 have been wounded in action. They represent a small percentage of the 6,630 U.S. service members who have died in those countries.

Military services will be responsible for developing plans for integrating women into combat roles. Services must report these implementation strategies to Panetta by May 15, but they have until January 2016 to actually make the changes. Some jobs may open up as early as this year.

Why It Matters

Panetta, who is expected to step down soon, stated that the decision to overturn the ban was made on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was informed by women’s service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The move follows the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy (which allows gay members of the military to be open about their sexual orientation), suggesting a more equality-focused paradigm shift in the military.

To ensure the inclusion of women, military services will be responsible for developing gender-neutral standards for physical fitness. The Army in particular will likely establish new physical requirements for infantry soldiers. (For example, both male and female candidates may have to lift a certain amount of weight in order to qualify for service.) The Marines have already begun to roll out new standards for women looking to qualify for combat positions: Females will need to complete at least three “dead hang” pull ups, the same requirement that male Marines have. The new regulations replace the 15-second “flexed arm hang” previously required of women.

Other branches of the military have been slower to update physical fitness requirements. Assessments for special operations forces such as Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force have not yet been determined. Services may request special exceptions to the new policy provided they can demonstrate adequate reason that specific positions are best closed to women.

Critics of the repeal express concerns that women are less physically capable of responding in front-line combat situations and worry that the presence of women in small units will upset rapport among male troops. But proponents of lifting the ban respond by pointing out that not much will change when the ban is repealed, given that women have already shown they’re capable of serving in combat. Lifting the ban will simply allow them to be recognized for it.

Updated February 4, 2012 by Laura Newcomer.

What do you think? Should women be allowed to serve in combat roles? Share your thoughts in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @LauraNewc.