(CBS News) Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to rescind the decades-old policy which prohibits women from serving in ground combat units.
The policy will make women eligible to serve as infantrymen on combat patrol and even in elite special operations units, like the Navy SEALS. However, women will have to meet strength standards that could keep them out of units where the physical demands are especially grueling.
Combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have already cost more than 130 women their lives and left more than 800 wounded.
Dawn Halfaker, who commanded a Military Police Platoon in Iraq and fought alongside infantry, was one of those wounded.
"We were all fighting the same fight, doing the same thing," Halfaker said.
The best machine gunner in Halfaker's platoon was Victoria Rivers, who was tapped to go on missions with Special Forces.
"It was just kind of euphoric, you know, riding along with somebody or working side by side with some Special Forces team. It was pretty cool," Rivers said.
But Rivers acknowledges some military jobs may be too demanding for a female physique.
"There's jobs that women can't do physically because they just don't have the strength, the physical strength, to do it," she said.
The Marines recently opened their 13-week infantry officer school to women, but the first two who volunteered dropped out. In the Army, an infantryman carries a 63-pound pack, which could go to more than 100 pounds, depending on the situation.
Panetta's order will open 200,000 more jobs to women, primarily in the Army and Marines. The services will have until May to draw up a plan for opening all units to women and until the end of 2015 to actually implement it.
If the military wants to keep a unit like Navy SEALS or Army Green Berets off limits to women, they will have to justify it to the Secretary of Defense.