On Thursday, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is planning to announce that the ban on female service members in combat roles will be lifted. This policy change removes the last remaining barrier to a fully inclusive military.
A senior defense official said on Wednesday that Panetta made the decision "upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff". Many female veteran activists said that they were stunned by the policy change because they assumed that the leadership was still uneasy about opening the most physically demanding positions to women.
The Army and the Marines, which make up the majority of the military's ground combat force, will present plans to open most jobs to women by May 15. The Army currently excludes women from about 25 percent of active-duty roles.
Panetta's decision follows a decade of counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women demonstrated heroism on battlefields with no front lines.