Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will lift the military's 1994 ban on women serving in direct combat roles, accepting the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommendation Thursday.
The unanimous vote by the country's top generals removes all barriers to women, opening thousands of jobs serving on the front lines and in Special Forces.
But the change won't take place overnight and not everyone thinks it's a good idea.
Will women joining the military have a choice to be in combat situations now? Verna Jones, with the American Legion, talks about this and more, on CBN Newswatch, Jan. 24.
"If they can meet the qualifications for the job, they should have the right to serve regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation," Panetta told reporters Thursday, explaining his reasons for lifting the ban.
His decision means the military will be fully integrated for the first time in U.S. history.
Critics say that putting men and women together in combat could hurt unit effectiveness, creating distractions and sexual tension.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., an Iraq War veteran, described the move as being "totally out of left field."
"The question you've got to ask yourself every single time you make a change like this is does it increase the combat effectiveness of the military? I think the answer is no," he said.
But advocates for the change pointed out that women have been serving in direct combat roles for years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The reality of the battlefield has changed since the Vietnam era. About everyone is serving in a combat situation," freshman Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a double amputee war veteran, said.
"Everyone, men and women alike, everyone is committed to doing the job," Panetta said. "They're fighting and they're dying together and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality." ")
Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, a Silver Star recipient, recalled, "We were taking fire everywhere. I just remember hearing the pings of the bullets going by me and hitting the ground beside me. I shot one guy and saw him fall."
An ABC News poll shows three-quarters of Americans support women in combat.
Women currently make up 14 percent of the military's 1.4 million active duty personnel. Veterans say lifting the combat ban makes it possible for females to make the military a lasting career.
The change means more 230,000 combat positions will be opened to women. Some veterans say it will help females make the military a lasting career.
Most branches of the military will present their plans to open jobs to women by May 15. But senior commanders will have until January 2016 to ask for exceptions if they believe certain roles should remain closed to women.
A decision possibly allowing women to serve in elite combat units like the Navy SEALs is not expected until then.