The U.S. military is ending its policy of excluding women from combat and will open combat jobs and direct combat units to female troops, multiple officials confirmed Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make the announcement Thursday and notify Congress of the planned change in policy, the officials said.
"We will eliminate the policy of 'no women in units that are tasked with direct combat,'" a senior defense official said.
The message of inclusion was well-received by Hailey Demma, whose husband serves in the Navy.
"I'm a Navy wife, and I know that if my husband's allowed out there, his sister should be. Go women. We fought for these rights," said Hailey Demma.
Clayton Grauel told Channel 4 women should have the option to serve however they want.
"I believe they should be allowed to go out there. Personally I think men should be in the combat zone, but I support their decision to go out there," said Grauel.
Not everyone thinks opening the front lines to women is for the best. Former Army Sergeant Melinda Ortiz said she did two tours in Afghanistan near the front lines, but not on the front lines.
"I would never say women should go into infantry, and stand side-by-side against a man on front lines in harsh conditions. I'm not saying we're any better than men. I'm just saying, as a woman and a mother, it's more of a manly position," said Ortiz.
Ortiz said women already serve quite close to the front lines. She said her other concern is what could happen if both a husband and wife served on the front lines at the same time.
"Both parents shouldn't take that risk and go. One parent should make that sacrifice and not be in it," said Ortiz.
Officials Wednesday cautioned that "not every position will open all at once on Thursday." Once the policy is changed, the Department of Defense will enter what is being called an "assessment phase," in which each branch of service will examine all its jobs and units not currently integrated and then produce a timetable for integrating them.
The Army and Marine Corps, especially, will be examining physical standards and gender-neutral accommodations within combat units. Every 90 days, the service chiefs will have to report on their progress.
The move will be one of the last significant policy decisions made by Panetta, who is expected to leave in mid-February. It is not clear where former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the nominated replacement, stands, but officials say he has been apprised of Panetta's coming announcement.
"It will take a while to work out the mechanics in some cases. We expect some jobs to open quickly, by the end of this year. Others, like special operations forces and infantry, may take longer," a senior defense official explained. Panetta is setting the goal of January 2016 for all assessments to be complete and women to be integrated as much as possible.
The Pentagon has left itself some wiggle room, however, which may ultimately lead to some jobs being designated as closed to women. A senior defense official said if, after the assessment, a branch finds that "a specific job or unit should not be open, they can go back to the secretary and ask for an exemption to the policy, to designate the job or unit as closed."
The official said the goal remains to open as many jobs as possible. "We should open all specialties to the maximum extent possible to women. We know they can do it."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent six years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said he supports lifting the ban on women serving in combat, pointing out women are already serving in harm's way. But he said the move should not fundamentally change the military.
"As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world -- particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units," McCain said in a statement.
Thousands of women in the military have already found themselves in combat situations, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. Recent wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan have lacked a real front line, and women serving there have come under fire and had to fight back alongside male counterparts, she said.