The Pentagon says that the role of women will be expanding in the months and years ahead.
U.S. Army Specialist Nicole Derk works on a helicopter at the beginning of her shift in Logar province, Afghanistan / Reuters
The Pentagon's new move to allow women to fill thousands of frontline jobs marks the second major shift in the makeup of the nation's armed forces in less than a year, underscoring the wide-ranging changes impacting the traditionally conservative institution.
Female troops have been informally serving alongside combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, and roughly 150 have been killed to date in the two war zones. The changes announced on Thursday will still bar them from serving in infantry units or elite forces like the Navy SEALs. But they will open up more than 14,000 other positions to women, making it easier for large numbers of women to serve as frontline medics, helicopter pilots, and intelligence analysts.
Bringing women closer to frontline combat roles isn't the only significant--and potentially controversial--recent change to the composition of the armed forces. Last year, the Pentagon eliminated the long-held "don't ask don't tell" provisions barring openly gay troops from serving in the military. Critics, including many Republican lawmakers, had warned that repealing the ban would harm military morale and cause internal dissension. But military officials now say that lifting the restrictions haven't caused any discipline problems or other issues.