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Pentagon's new rules deploy women closer to combat

The Pentagon has changed some of its rules.  Women will be permitted in crucial and dangerous jobs closer to the front lines.  NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.  

Some restrictions on women serving in combat roles in the military will be relaxed, the Pentagon said on Thursday, reflecting the reality that women have served, and died, in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Defense Department would still prohibit women from serving in infantry, armor and special operations units, whose main function is to engage in front-line combat, defense officials said. But women will be allowed to move closer to the trenches by stationing them near direct ground troops in jobs such as tank mechanic and field artillery radar. Previously, women had been billeted away from smaller combat units.

NBC News: Pentagon to open more military jobs to women

The move is a reaction to what the Pentagon calls the “non-linear and fluid” nature of the modern battlefield.

In addition, the Pentagon said it will develop “gender-neutral physical standards" for all service members, which the military will use in assigning future jobs.

“Women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission. Through their courage, sacrifice, patriotism and great skill, women have proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles on and off the battlefield,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in a statement. “We will continue to open as many positions as possible to women so that anyone qualified to serve can have the opportunity to do so.”

Report: Growing number of military women see combat, serve in leadership roles

"It's a tiny step," Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and former Marine, told The Washington Post. "It’s a bit of a slap in the face. We’re already doing this stuff.”

Nearly 12 percent of U.S. forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were women. They represented about 2 percent of U.S. military deaths in those wars.

The Pentagon announces new rules that reflect changes brought on by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NBC's Chris Clackum reports.

Under a policy adopted in 1994, women are allowed to serve in combat units as medics, intelligence officers and other jobs at the brigade level, which is a force of around 3,500 people.

But a woman could not be assigned to perform the same job in a battalion, which can be as small as a few hundred troops and whose forces are more likely to be directly exposed to combat.

The military has sometimes gotten around the rules by attaching women to battalions, which allowed them to work in the smaller units but kept them from officially receiving credit for being in combat.

Since combat experience is a factor in promotions and job advancement in the military, women have had greater difficulty than men in moving up to the top ranks, officials said.

The Pentagon's plan to change its rules now goes to Congress, which may review the policy shift before it goes into effect, probably sometime this summer. During that period, Congress potentially could take action to oppose the policy changes.

"We believe it's very important to explore ways to offer more opportunities to women in the military," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told Reuters. "It doesn't stop today. We'll continue to look for ways to open more positions to women in the military."

The decision on whether women should formally serve in combat positions will be determined in future reviews, officials told NBC News.

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube and Reuters contributed to this report.

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