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U.S. Army Spc. Rebecca Buck, a medic from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, provides perimeter security outside an Iraqi police station in the Tarmiya Province of Iraq, March 30, 2008.

U.S. Army Spc. Rebecca Buck, a medic from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, provides perimeter security outside an Iraqi police station in the Tarmiya Province of Iraq, March 30, 2008. (William Greer/Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON - Defense officials will allow female troops to work in front-line battlefield units for the first time but still bar them from combat infantry jobs under rules announced Thursday.

The move comes after a Pentagon study on the changing roles of women in the military and will open more than 14,000 active-duty and reserve jobs previously off-limits to female troops. They include occupations such as combat medic, artillery mechanic, communications expert and other critical warfighting posts.

Supporters have pushed for the changes for years, pointing out that female servicemembers have already braved combat conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the distinction between infantry fighters and noncombat support roles has been blurred by roadside bombs and guerrilla warfare.

Because of the combat exclusion rules, women were kept from working full-time with infantry units and not given promotion credit for combat jobs they performed.

In a report to Congress, department leaders said the services are "committed to pursuing the elimination of gender-restricted policies where feasible while maintaining force readiness." It acknowledges that the current fighting overseas has rendered many traditional combat roles moot, and said the change is "based on 10 years of recent combat experiences."

Pentagon officials defended their decision not to open all combat posts to women right away, saying that more study is still needed before that step can be made. About 240,000 positions across the four services remain closed to women, largely in infantry and special forces roles.

"To make a change this large during wartime is difficult, but I'm very pleased with these steps so far," said Vee Penrod, deputy assistant secretary for military personnel policy.

Principal Director for Military Policy Maj. Gen. Gary Patton said officials will review progress on the changes in six months, and use the experience to recommend other jobs that could be opened to women.

"We recognize the expanded role of women in the military already," he said. "I wish I had the opportunity to bring more women into my battalion (during overseas deployments). It expands the talent pool."

Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, called Thursday's announcement a "huge step in the right direction" but said she remains frustrated that female troops still won't be allowed to serve in combat infantry roles.

Still, she said, the changes are a welcome relief, both for female troops pushing for equal opportunities and combat units already fatigued by a decade of war.

American Women Veterans founder Genevieve Chase echoed that sentiment, saying she has heard from numerous commanders who couldn't use highly qualified female servicemembers for certain jobs because of the rules.

"The nature of war has changed and battlefield commanders have found value in the contributions of women in combat, and especially counterinsurgency operations," she said, pointing to the use of Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan today.

"Our military has realized that we have the ability to field the best America has to offer and all those who volunteer to serve our country should receive equal training and career opportunities, regardless of their gender."

The change will also eliminate rules that prohibit women from living alongside combat units, and spur the development of gender-neutral standards for a variety of military positions.

According to Defense Department statistics, 110 female servicemembers died while deployed to Iraq during U.S. operations there, and 34 others have died while serving in Afghanistan. Another 865 women have been wounded in action during the two wars.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, believes the change will hurt combat readiness.

"There is no recognition of reality in this decision," she said. "The military's mission is defending the country, and we should not be treating the military as just another equal opportunity employer."

Donnelly said the new rules essentially make female troops eligible for combat roles they are not physically strong enough to perform, like carrying a wounded soldier away from the battlefield. She scoffed at the idea of setting physical standards for female servicemembers headed to the battlefield, saying that the "politics of diversity" will result in unprepared individuals heading into dangerous situations.

Last month, during a town hall meeting with ROTC cadets in North Carolina, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called some of the restrictions on female troops "completely ludicrous" and hinted that officials were working to update the policies.

Report authors said they do not believe the changes will force an update in the Selective Service process, which currently exempts women for registering for military service in the event of a draft.

Congress will have 30 in-session days to review the decision before it goes into effect. Even if lawmakers object, it is unlikely their opposition would delay implementation of the new policy.

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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