WASHINGTON: The US military is to announce the end of a 19-year ban on women in combat, a sweeping change that appears to recognise the reality that female troops have experienced since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, were expected to announce the lifting of the ban as early as Thursday.
Like the elimination of the ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy prohibiting gay men and women from serving openly, the decision represents a far-reaching reversal of military policy and is emblematic of the changing mores and culture in the American armed services.
About 200,000 women are among the 1.4 million active-duty personnel currently serving.
The decision follows a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the ban, which was filed in November by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of four female service members. All four had served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, and two had received Purple Hearts for injuries sustained on duty.
Reversing the ban, said the ACLU's senior staff attorney, Ariela Migdal, means ''qualified women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their brothers-in-arms, which they actually already have been doing with valour and distinction''.
The policy has been a ban almost in name only. But the danger female troops faced came to the attention of many Americans only early during the Iraq war when Jessica Lynch, a private first class and Army truck driver, was captured and held hostage.
Almost 2 per cent of the nearly 4000 military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq were women, according to Military Times.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, was quick to support the change: ''It reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations,'' he said in a statement. But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Centre for Military Readiness, a nonprofit group that opposes women in combat, said the change was ''irresponsible.''
''For the same reason you don't see women in the NFL, you shouldn't see women in combat units,'' she said. ''Women are not the equal of men.''