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By Tom Vanden Brook | USA Today

Women will join front-line combat roles by 2016, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

The services laid out their schedules Tuesday for achieving full integration over the next three years.

Those timelines followed the decision in January by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to open 237,000 military jobs off-limits to women. Those include infantry, armor and special operations.

There are about 1.4 million members of the active-duty military, about 14 percent of them women.

The Pentagon is developing gender-neutral tests men and women must pass to qualify for combat roles.

The Army, for example, plans to open jobs in sequence, starting with engineers in 2014 and applying the lessons it learns in that branch to armor and infantry units in 2015. Those two branches account for more than 90,000 jobs, the largest share of combat roles closed to women.

"I remain confident that we will retain the trust and confidence of the American people by opening positions to women, while ensuring that all members entering these newly opened positions can meet the standards required to maintain our war-fighting capability," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in a memo to service secretaries and chiefs.

Women already serve in combat roles, flying warplanes, serving as medics and serving aboard submarines. Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 292,000 women have served in war zones out of a total of almost 2.5 million, Pentagon records show. In both wars, at least 152 women have died from combat or non-combat causes, and more than 950 have been wounded in action.

The services may seek special exceptions to the new policy if they deem positions must remain closed to women.

Special operations troops are expected to be the highest hurdle for women to clear.

The Army's elite Ranger Regiment, which supports U.S. Special Operations Command, will develop standards for women and men to pass by July 1, 2015.

The Pentagon modified its policy restricting women from serving in combat in 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service. Women cannot be assigned below brigade level -- a unit of about 3,500 troops -- to fight. That has kept women out of infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers and special operations units of battalion size -- about 700 troops -- or lower.

(Copyright 2008 Gannett Co. Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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