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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat, which will open up hundreds of thousands of additional front-line jobs to them, senior defense officials said Wednesday.

The groundbreaking decision overturns a 1994 Pentagon rule that restricts women from artillery, armor, infantry and other such combat roles, even though in reality women have found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 20,000 have served. As of last year, more than 800 women had been wounded in the two wars and more than 130 had died.

Defense officials offered few details about Panetta’s decision but described it as the beginning of a process to allow the branches of the military to put it into effect. Defense officials said Panetta had made the decision on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Women have long chafed under the combat restrictions and have increasingly pressured the Pentagon to catch up with the reality on the battlefield.

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“This is a day I thought I would never see,” said Lourdes Alvarado-Ramos, an Army veteran who serves as director of the Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs.

Back in 1971, Alvarado-Ramos trained as a medic and volunteered to go to Vietnam, but was turned down. She stayed on in the Army in a 23-year career that ended with her serving as troop command sergeant major at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. But she still has regrets.

“I had all the ability to save lives on the battlefield, but because I was a woman — at the time, I did not get that opportunity … still feel like that is missing. Not having been able to serve along with my comrades in a fight.”

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been no formal front lines. So women have frequently found themselves in combat.

In Iraq, for example, women helped protect military convoys that insurgents frequently attacked. In Afghanistan, women pilot helicopters that attack insurgent positions and serve on explosive-ordnance demolition teams that dismantle bombs.

But at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where more than 4,200 women now serve, the vast majority of positions in the Stryker and other combat brigades remain off-limits to women. And the Army Rangers are an all-male force.

Casey Thoreen, a former Army captain who deployed to Afghanistan with a Lewis-McChord-based Stryker Brigade, said he thinks it will take time to integrate women into combat roles. But he supports the removal of the ban.

“I have seen lots of great female leaders in the Army who could do my job as well as me, or better,” Thoreen said. “As long as (fitness for duty) standards don’t change, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Panetta’s decision came after he received a Jan. 9 letter from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the armed-service chiefs all agreed that “the time has come to rescind the direct combat-exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”

A copy of Dempsey’s letter was provided by a Pentagon official on condition of anonymity.

As recently as two months ago, four servicewomen filed a federal lawsuit against the Pentagon challenging its combat restriction, saying they had all served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan but had not been officially recognized for it.

In the military, serving in combat positions like the infantry remains crucial to career advancement in the military.

It is unclear to what degree Congress will review the decision, although in the past some Republican members of the House have balked at allowing women in combat.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there appeared to be bipartisan support for the decision on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called it a “historic step for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation.” She added that “in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male service members.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that she was pleased by the decision and that it “reflects the increasing role that female service members play in securing our country.”

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report, which also includes material from The New York Times.

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