could open thousands of fighting jobs to female service members for the first time, knocks down another societal barrier in the US armed forces after the Pentagon in 2011 scrapped its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
"I feel like it's beyond time," said Staff Sergeant Tiffany Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, describing the move as an overdue recognition that women already serve in combat.
But not all were pleased by the decision. The conservative Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee complained the move could detract from the military's role in protecting the country.
"Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness," the group's president, Penny Nance, said.
Defense officials said the decision to end the ban was made by Panetta, and that individual military services would have until 2016 to seek exemptions if they believe any combat roles should remain closed to women.
Women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq during the last dozen years have accompanied Marines on house raids so they could conduct weapons searches on Muslim women captives who could not be frisked by men. They drive trucks in supply convoys and pilot low-flying cargo planes, dangerous jobs that make them a target.
"They're prime targets because people want the supplies and want to eliminate the supply line," said Suzanne Lachelier, a Navy reserve commander who has served on active duty, though not in combat zones.
"Women are already at risk anyway, so the combat distinction is false at this point," said Lachelier, a Navy lawyer whose work has taken her to Sudan and Yemen.
Women's combat roles were not recognized and the men they served alongside got the combat ribbons and ensuing promotions, several military women said.
"I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches," said Anu Bhagwati, 37, a Marine captain who said she left the service in 2004 in large part because of the combat exclusion policy.
Bhagwati is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, one of the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Panetta