The Defense Department says 152 female troops have been killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. President Obama said Panetta's decision "reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today's military."
Understandable concern has been expressed by critics who fear placing women in some units could jeopardize their cohesiveness and ability to accomplish arduous missions. But that's why the directive gives the service branches three years to evaluate and recommend jobs that should be excluded from the new orders.
The bottom line must be that women meet the same standards as men for commando, special forces, or any other job. As retired Col. Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient, said Thursday on the Today show, a soldier in combat won't care what his buddy's gender is as long as that person can be counted on to do her job.
There is another concern in putting women in combat stations that demands attention - the intolerably high number of sexual assaults that are already occurring. The Defense Department says there were 22,800 violent sex crimes in the U.S. military in 2011, the bulk of them committed against women. It's estimated that one in five women will be raped or sexually assaulted while serving their country.
Columbia University professor Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq, says allowing women to serve in combat may help reduce that statistic. She told an Inquirer editorial writer that's what many of the female soldiers she has interviewed believe.
"They feel like second-class soldiers because the essence of being a soldier is fighting on the ground," Benedict said, adding that many female soldiers believe they will get respect and stop being targets for sexual assault when male soldiers learn they can depend on them in combat.
Whether that occurs or not, the Pentagon must get rid of the sexual predators. For too long, it has been difficult for women to report assaults because a superior was complicit. Only 191 soldiers were convicted in courts martial for sex crimes last year. It shouldn't be safer for women to be in combat than in their own barracks.