Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watches Afghan soldiers receive training on how to detect roadside bombs at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan, in July 2011.

Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watches Afghan soldiers receive training on how to detect roadside bombs at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan, in July 2011. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta knows that not everyone is cut out to be a combat soldier. But he believes everyone is entitled to the chance.

In his year and a half at the helm of the Defense Department, Panetta has overseen a drawdown in Afghanistan, helped implement a new Pacific-centric defense strategy and repeatedly criticized Congress for its failure to act to avoid automatic spending cuts. But his most enduring impact on the military, before he steps down as soon as a replacement is named, may be the cultural changes he’s effected, breaking down historic barriers to service to give everyone — regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race or creed — the opportunity to serve in the all-volunteer force.

Panetta went to the Pentagon after more than two years as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Two months after his arrival at the Pentagon, he sat with then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen to cheer the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“As secretary of defense, I am committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant,” Panetta said at the time. “These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country, and that’s what should matter the most.”

Removing the law gave gay and lesbian troops the freedom to serve openly, without fear of losing their careers because of their sexual orientation. While critics predicted myriad problems throughout the services, no significant problems or disruptions have been reported since the repeal.

A few months later, in January 2012, Panetta announced new measures to protect victims of sexual assault in the military.

“As leaders of this department, we’re committed to doing everything we can to ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of our people,” Panetta said in a press conference at the time. “These men and these women who are willing to fight and to die, if necessary, to protect and serve our country — they’re entitled to much better protection.”

Advocates praised the changes, but said they didn’t go far enough. Some women argued that the long-standing policy banning women from combat institutionalized unequal status between the genders, exacerbating a culture of sexual harassment and assault.

But Panetta wasn’t finished. Less than a month after his announcement about changes to sexual assault policy, the Pentagon announced it would open thousands of military jobs and assignments to women that had previously been limited to men.

In his last weeks in the E-Ring, Panetta announced the elimination of the policy that had banned women from combat, and he is expected to extend more military benefits to the same-sex spouses of servicemembers.

“Our purpose is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable servicemembers,” Panetta said, announcing the end of the combat exclusion policy. “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.”

Some have derided the change as an attempt at political correctness that could put servicemembers at risk. Panetta’s message was the opposite.

“By opening up more opportunities for people to serve in uniform, we are making our military stronger and we are making America stronger,” he said. “We honor — we deeply honor all of those past generations — combat soldiers and Marines, who fought and died for our freedom. And in many ways, their sacrifice has ensured that the next greatest generation will be one of men and women who will fight and die together to protect this nation. And that is what freedom is all about.”

In an interview with Stars and Stripes on Wednesday, Panetta said his “greatest concern … and the greatest disappointment” has been his inability to provide budget certainty for the military. Still, he said he has been “extremely proud” of what he has been able to achieve.

“I just can’t put into words what it means to lead men and women in uniform who have to put their lives on the line,” he said. “That’s just been a very special privilege for me.”

The vote for President Barack Obama’s choice for the next secretary of defense, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, had been delayed after a contentious Pentagon confirmation hearing, but is expected this week.

Panetta supports his nomination, and has said he is confident that Hagel is prepared to succeed him in the job. Twitter: @jhlad

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