Jan. 24, 2013 -- Women will soon be able to serve in combat, as things officially changed with the stroke of a pen today at the Pentagon.
At a joint news conference, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Charman Gen. Martin Dempsey signed a memorandum rolling back a 1994 directive prohibiting women from doing so.
"They serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other," Panetta said of women and men in the military. "The time has come to recognize that reality.
"If they're willing to put their lives on the line, then we need to recognize that they deserve a chance," Panetta said, noting that he wants his own granddaughters and grandsons to have the same opportunities in their lives and careers.
The change won't be immediate, however. While Panetta announced that thousands of new positions will now be open to women, he has asked the military branches to submit plans by May on how to integrate women into combat operations. He set a January 2016 deadline for branches to implement the changes, giving military services time to seek waivers for certain jobs.
Both Panetta and Dempsey said they believe the move will strengthen the U.S. military force.
"Ultimately, we are acting to strengthen the armed forces," Dempsey said. "We will extend opportunities to women in a way that maintains readiness, morale and unit cohesion."
Women have already served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, as ABC News' Martha Raddatz and Elizabeth Gorman reported in 2009: Prohibited from serving in roles "whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground," women in support roles, nonetheless, served in support roles on the frontlines, where they have fought, been wounded and died.
Women have also flown combat missions since 1993 and have served on submarines since 2010.
Panetta noted that 152 women have died serving in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dempsey said he realized a change was inevitable when he noticed two female turret gunners protecting a senior military officer.
"It's clear to all of us that women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military's mission of defending the nation," Panetta said. "Women represent 15 percent of the force of over 200,000 [and] are serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield.
"I've gone to Bethesda to visit wounded warriors, and I've gone to Arlington to bury our dead. There's no distincton."
Panetta and Dempsey said President Obama supported the move, while warning them to maintain military readiness as they considered the change.
Obama hailed the move in a written statement
"Today, by moving to open more military positions -- including ground combat units -- to women, our armed forces have taken another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens," he said.
"This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today's military," Obama said.
"As commander in chief, I am absolutely confident that -- as with the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' -- the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world," the president said. "Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love."
As for the challenges in integrating women into combat roles, Dempsey stressed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff wants a "critical mass" of women in the new roles, to serve as mentors and provide upward mobility. He also said that physical requirements won't be such a daunting challenge, and that it will be up to the service branches to justify any requirements that prevent women from serving.
"Physical standards seem to be the ones people focus on," Dempsey said, responding to a reporter's question. "We can figure that out. We figured out privacy."