Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday that he is giving the armed services until Jan. 1 to submit plans to make the change.
“There will be no exceptions,” Carter said to reporters gathered at the Pentagon. “This means that as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before. They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, lead infantry soldiers into combat.”
He continued, “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
The groundbreaking decision comes in the wake of lengthy debate and studies to determine whether the U.S. military should overturn a 1994 rule that banned women from serving in jobs designated for combat. Those jobs included infantry, armor and artillery. The new move will allow women to vie for some 220,000 slots, Carter added.
Carter appeared alone, unaccompanied by Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Until Oct. 1 of this year, Dunford served as commandant of the Marine Corps, the sole service that requested exclusions from placing women in combat roles. The Marines asked that women be excluded from some jobs because studies showed that mixed gender units are less capable in combat than all-male units.
In response to a reporter’s question about Dunford’s absence, Carter said he appeared solo to make the announcement because the decision was his alone.
“Implementation won’t happen overnight,” Carter said, adding that all the services would work together to integrate women into the newly opened roles.
President Barack Obama released a statement in support of the landmark decision on Thursday.
“As Commander in Chief, I know that this change, like others before it, will again make our military even stronger,” the statement read in part. “Our armed forces will draw on an even wider pool of talent. Women who can meet the high standards required will have new opportunities to serve.”
The statement concluded, “Together, we’re going to make sure our military remains the finest fighting force in the history of the world, worthy of all our patriots who serve – men and women.”
The announcement was met with mixed reaction in Congress. Two members of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee – Chairman John McCain and ranking member Jack Reed – issued seemingly conflicting statements.
“I applaud @DeptofDefense decision to remove – once and for all – barriers to service by women in our Armed Forces, Reid tweeted.
McCain was less enthusiastic.
“Secretary Carter’s decision to open all combat position to women will have a consequential impact on our service members and our military’s warfighting capabilities,” McCain said in a statement. “The Congress has an essential constitutional role to make rules for the government and regulation of our nation’s armed forces.”
McCain added that in the coming 30 days, Congress will review the new policy.
One combat veteran, speaking exclusively to PEOPLE, disagrees with the decision.
“This flies in the face of studies that show women cannot perform to standards of men in combat,” says Jim Lechner, a retired infantry officer and Ranger who served in the Battle of Mogadishu [Blackhawk Down incident]. “This proves that the political agenda of this administration supercedes concerns for national security.”
As for Carter, he assures warfighting was central to his decision.
“We can’t succeed to defend the nation by eliminating half of the U.S. population from combat roles,” he said.