For the first time, women in the armed forces will be moved into combat roles. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will make the official announcement Thursday.

Since they were first permitted to join the armed forces, women have been restricted from participating in active ground combat. This policy will be eliminated, clearing the way for 237,000 jobs for women in the various branches on the front lines of battle.

A senior defense official, speaking with NBC News, said, "We are moving in the direction of women as infantry soldiers."

Reactions in Congress, where such a policy change must be considered for 30 days, were mixed. Senator Carl Levin (D.-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said, "I support it. It reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations."

His Senate colleague, Patty Murray (D.-Wash.) also supported the move: "It's important to remember that in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male service members." Murray heads the Veterans Affairs Committee.

However, in the House of Representatives, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) criticized the decision: "The question you've got to ask yourself every single time you make a change like this is: Does it increase the combat effectiveness of the military? ... I think the answer is no." Hunter is a member of the Armed Services Committee and an Iraq War veteran.

The move comes with the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which will join Thursday's announcement with Panetta, the departing head of the Pentagon. The various branches of the armed forces will have until January 2016 to implement the changes.

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