WASHINGTON (CNN, KATV) -- The U.S. military is ending its policy of excluding women from combat and will "expeditiously" open front-line units to female troops, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday.
Women already are on the front lines overseas despite an official ban on combat, "and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.
"The fact is, they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission, and for more than a decade of war they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism," Panetta said.
The White House issued a statement Thursday from President Barack Obama regarding the military's decision. It said, in part:
Congressman Tom Cotton made national headlines earlier this month when he said in a radio interview on the Laura Ingraham Show that he supported the military's now outgoing policy banning women from front-line combat positions. He said that allowing women in such positions could impair the mission.
"It's nature, you know," he said. "Upper body strength and physical movements and speed and endurance and so forth. So while women are serving on the front lines in many critical capacities where they make great contributions, to have them in the infantry in either the Marine Corp or the Army could impair the missions of central tasks of those forces."
The American Legion had a similar reaction Thursday after the announcement was made. A press release said, in part:
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the decision would be implemented "over time and with careful analysis." But he said the service chiefs were unanimous in their support for the move.
Officials told CNN on Wednesday that not every position will open all at once. 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.