in protecting the country.
"Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness," the group's president, Penny Nance, said.
Defense officials said the decision to end the ban was made by Panetta, and that individual military services would have until 2016 to seek exemptions if they believe any combat roles should remain closed to women.
Women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq during the last dozen years have accompanied Marines on house raids so they could conduct weapons searches on Muslim women captives who could not be frisked by men. They drive trucks in supply convoys and pilot low-flying cargo planes, dangerous jobs that make them a target.
"They're prime targets because people want the supplies and want to eliminate the supply line," said Suzanne Lachelier, a Navy reserve commander who has served on active duty, though not in combat zones.
"Women are already at risk anyway, so the combat distinction is false at this point," said Lachelier, a Navy lawyer whose work has taken her to Sudan and Yemen.
Women's combat roles were not recognized and the men they served alongside got the combat ribbons and ensuing promotions, several military women said.
"I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches," said Anu Bhagwati, 37, a Marine captain who said she left the service in 2004 in large part because of the combat exclusion policy.
Bhagwati is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, one of the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Panetta in November, claiming the ban was unconstitutional because it discriminated against women.
"There are many incredibly talented, gifted, enthusiastic, hard-charging Marines that I knew who left the Marine Corps because of combat exclusion policy," said Bhagwati, who lives in New York City.
She said that under Panetta, the military had made great progress in fighting discrimination and harassment of women. She called the move "a historic moment" that she hadn't expected to come so soon.
Newly elected Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard, an Army captain in the Hawaii National Guard who was twice deployed to the Middle East, said American female service members have contributed on the battlefield as far back as the U.S. Civil War, when some disguised themselves as men.
"It is crucial that we shed light on the great value and opportunities that these women bring," Gabbard said.
Several military women said they had no doubts women could meet the physical requirements for