Women have been playing a vital role in the United States military for years, yet despite the fact that they were being deployed overseas alongside their male counterparts, they were still banned from serving in combat roles. That all changed on Thursday, however, when the Pentagon announced that, for the first time, it would allow female soldiers to serve in infantry and commando units. 

A long time coming
Though technically not in combat units, female soldiers have played a vital role in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 10-plus years, often coming under heavy fire. In fact, an estimated 12 percent of soldiers deployed in the two wars were women, and they made up around 2 percent of the casualties, according to Reuters. 

The changes are expected to be fully implemented by 2016 and will open up around 230,000 new positions to female soldiers. In making the announcement, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that providing more opportunities to troops, regardless of their gender, will make the Armed Forces much stronger. 

“Every person in today’s military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die, for our nation’s defense,” he said. “We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified.”

Widespread praise
The move by Panetta, who is expected to leave his post as Defense Secretary shortly after more than 18 months on the job, has been applauded by many people both inside and outside the military community. Among its biggest champions is Gen. Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who praised the decision during a recent interview on CBS This Morning.

“Anybody can be on the front line,” he told hosts Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnel​l. “Women are fighting, they’re dying and they’ve shown they have great skills.”

Just the latest barrier
The decision to lift the ban on women in combat positions continues the tradition of breaking down barriers in the military over the last two years. In 2011, for instance, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly, was officially removed. 

This isn’t the first stride made that will help women advance their military careers. In December, three female Navy officers broke new ground when they earned their “dolphins,” the branch’s oldest warfare pins, according to Navy Times.