Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that he recognized the need for change on a 2003 trip to Baghdad as commander of the 1st Armored Division.
After climbing into an armored Humvee, Dempsey said, he slapped the turret-gunner on the leg and asked, “Who are you?” She said her name was Amanda.
“So — female turret-gunner protecting division commander,” Dempsey said at a Pentagon news conference. “And it’s from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it.”
Women, who make up about 15 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel, have increasingly been exposed to combat as the traditional front lines of battle blur in an age of terrorism and unconventional warfare. Women also fly combat aircraft, including helicopters and carrier-based Navy fighters, and the Navy has begun assigning women to duty on submarines.
In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 152 women have died, out of more than 6,600 U.S. fatalities, and more than 860 women have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.
“Women are already on the ground doing the tough work,” said former Navy Lt. Carey Lohrenz, one of the first women assigned to fly Navy combat jets in the early 1990s. “They’re already there. This is for the most part an administrative fix.”
The new policy will change a 1994 rule that barred women from being assigned to ground-combat units below the brigade level. A brigade typically has several thousand troops, and women have been restricted to serving in support roles for ground-combat forces.
Panetta’s move in rescinding the ban was one of his final initiatives before his planned retirement. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., President Obama’s nominee to head the Pentagon in his second term, may face questions about the policy change at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services panel. Hagel supports the new policy, according to a defense official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Thursday.