From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Two days ago, in his inaugural address, President Obama recited the famous line from the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Well, today, at the Pentagon, another group of Americans found a barrier to equal opportunity suddenly lifted. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended the military's ban on women serving in combat. That means more than 200,000 positions in the infantry and the artillery could ultimately open to women.

To learn more about what this might mean, we're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And, Tom, what exactly does Secretary Panetta's action today do?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, he lifted what's called a combat exclusion policy. So it basically scraps the policy that bars women from serving directly in ground combat jobs. And he also asked the armed services to develop plans for allowing women to seek these positions and basically telling the services to put it into effect. Now we're talking about really the Army and the Marine Corps here almost exclusively, and it's nearly a quarter million jobs between them that could be open to women.

BLOCK: And what types of jobs would those be?

BOWMAN: Well, this - ground combat, so we're talking about armor, infantry, artillery. So on the battlefield, these would be the people driving tanks, going on patrols through villages in Afghanistan, let's say, and firing Howitzers, basically those involved in the fight on the ground.

BLOCK: Tom, a lot of people would say, look, women have effectively been not just serving in combat already, but dying in combat and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: Yeah. No, I've seen women in Afghanistan providing security for officers out on patrol or in meetings, carrying M4 assault rifles just like the men, and if they're under fire, they would have to react. And I've seen women in small combat outposts, working alongside men as medics or training Afghan forces. And the thing is, in these counterinsurgencies today, the front lines aren't as clear as they used to be.

BLOCK: Tom, what's the practical effect of this policy, and does it mean that women would move into these roles, these jobs that you're talking about, right away?

BOWMAN: No. Nothing will happen right away. The services have to figure out how to make it happen and, again, put together some sort of a plan. So they might come up, for example, with some sort of physical requirements, like you have to lift 50 pounds over your head. You have to run a mile in X amount of time, for example. So that could mean a lot of women who want to serve just can't pass these physical tests.

And the secretary also is giving the military roughly three years to identify what are called special exceptions, and that could mean like the Green Berets, Navy SEALs, for example. They might bar women because of their extremely tough physical standards.

BLOCK: Talk a bit, Tom, about what opponents of having women in combat positions, what they say.

BOWMAN: Well, you know, for years now, they've been saying that, listen, women aren't physically able to do these combat jobs. They aren't able to carry the weight of full packs, the weapons for long periods of time, aren't able to climb over walls in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. But clearly, Secretary Panetta wants to give them this chance.

BLOCK: And on the other hand, folks who think this is a good idea say this is the way for women, really, to advance through the ranks of the military?

BOWMAN: Right. That's been one of the problems over the years. You know, some women have died in combat. Some have received Purple Hearts and other medals for bravery, but they haven't been able to be in these jobs and get promotions that they need, and that's been one of the issues here. It's really a fairness issue. It helps them in their careers. So that's been one of the driving points on this whole scrapping the ground combat exclusion policy.

BLOCK: OK. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Tom Bowman with the news that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has lifted the military's ban on women serving in combat.

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