Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in announcing Thursday that he is lifting a ban on women serving in combat, said he believes women have become an integral part of the military's ability to succeed.
Panetta made his announcement with the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, at a Pentagon news conference.
Panetta said that not everyone can meet the qualifications to be a combat soldier. But, he said, everyone is entitled to the chance.
"I have been to Iraq twice, Kuwait three times, and Kurdistan once," said retired Army Supply Sergeant Sarah Garland. "In this current conflict, there's no clear definition of a front line. I had as much potential as the next guy of getting blown up on the road or shot."
Garland said Thursday's news has taken decades too long.
"I felt really fantastic, to be honest with you," she told KGW. "I couldn't believe it."
She said for years women have been serving in the heart of the action, but were overlooked for promotion, hitting a "brass ceiling."
"If there is a woman who can meet the physical qualifications--and I mean at the male standards--and can do the job," she said, "there's no reason why she should not be given the opportunity."
Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, or to jobs in neighboring nations in support of the wars. Of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members who have been killed, 152 have been women.
But military officials caution that not every position will open all at once on Thursday.
The Department of Defense will enter what is being called an assessment phase, in which each branch of service will examine all of its jobs and units not currently integrated, and then produce a timetable in which it can integrate them.
Officials said after the assessment, a branch can go to back to Secretary Panetta and ask for certain jobs or units to remain an exemption.
Retired Army Specialist Cheryl Campos is one of those who wanted to be on the front lines while serving in Korea.
"But you have the old school guys saying that women had no business in being in the military," she said.
Campos said even now she can see part of the argument.
"There's a lot of guys that would be protective of the woman and maybe put themselves in a more dangerous spot than what they would for a guy and there's also that bond of brothers," she said. "You can't downplay it. But at the same time, I think we need to give them the shot, give them the opportunity and if they can hang, let them do it."
Secretary Panetta has set a goal of January 2016 for all assessments to be complete and women integrated as much as possible.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.