whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches," said Bhagwati, who called the decision an "historic moment."
"I didn't expect it to come so soon," she said.
For Panetta, the decision adds to his legacy as a secretary who oversaw the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and now started the process to end discrimination against women. Otherwise, his tenure has been dominated by budget wrangling, the end of the Iraq war and the troop reduction in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama has nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Panetta's successor.
The decision comes nearly a year after the Pentagon unveiled a policy that opened 14,000 new jobs to women but still prohibited them from serving in infantry, armor and special operations units whose main function was to engage in front-line combat.
Asked last year why women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting security details and house-to-house searches were still being formally barred from combat positions, Pentagon officials said the services wanted to see how they performed in the new positions before opening up further.
Nearly 300,000 women have been deployed in the US forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over the past 11 years, or about 12 percent of the total. Women have counted some 84 hostile casualties in those wars.
Ending US combat ban will even career playing field, servicewomen say
(Reuters) A Pentagon decision to lift a ban on women in front-line combat roles will remove an obstacle that stymied women's careers but had little meaning on modern battlefields with no clear front lines, U.S. military women said on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to formally announce on Thursday that he will lift the policy that excluded women from units whose main job is to engage in combat, U.S. defense officials said.
"Everyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is in combat by the very nature of those conflicts," said Peggy Reiber, who retired from the Marine Corps 16 years ago as a first sergeant and lives in a San Diego suburb.
"Women have certainly fought equally and died equally, it's time we were recognized equally."
The move, which