Good afternoon. One of my priorities as Secretary of Defense has been to remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform. Our nation was built on the premise of the citizen-soldier. In our democracy, I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation. And every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity.
To that end, I've been working closely with General Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We've been working for well over a year to examine, how can we expand the opportunities for women in the armed services?
It's clear to all of us that women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military's mission of defending the nation. Women represent 15 percent of the force, over 200,000. They're serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield. The fact is that they have become an integral part of our ability to perform our mission.
Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism. A hundred and fifty-two women in uniform have died serving this nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Female servicemembers have faced the reality of combat, proven their willingness to fight and, yes, to die to defend their fellow Americans.
However, many military positions, particularly in ground combat units, still remain closed to women because of the 1994 direct ground combat definition and assignment rule. Military and civilian leaders in this department have been taking a hard look at that rule based on the experiences of the last decade.
In early 2012, we announced a series of modifications to that rule which opened up more than 14,000 new positions to women, including positions that were collocated with ground combat units and certain positions in ground combat units below the battalion level. These changes have been implemented, and the experience has been very positive.
Every time I visited the warzone, every time I've met with troops, reviewed military operations, and talked to wounded warriors, I've been impressed with the fact that everyone - men and women alike - everyone is committed to doing the job. They're fighting and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.
The chairman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I believe that we must open up service opportunities for women as fully as possible. And therefore today, General Dempsey and I are pleased to announce that we are eliminating the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women and we are moving forward with a plan to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service. In a few moments after we speak, we'll both sign a memo that will rescind the '94 barrier.
Our purpose is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the best qualified and the most capable servicemembers, regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs. If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job - and let me be clear, I'm not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job - if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.
Having conducted an extensive review, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have developed a very thoughtful approach to integrating women into occupations across the force. I strongly agree with their guiding principles and the specific milestones that they propose.
We are all committed to implementing this change without compromising readiness or morale or our warfighting capabilities. Positions will be open to women following service reviews, using the Joint Chiefs' guiding principles, and following congressional notification procedures established by law.
For this change and policy to succeed, it must be done in a responsible, measured, and a coherent way. I'll let General Dempsey describe our plan of action in greater detail. But the bottom line is that further integration of women will occur expeditiously, even as we recognize the need to take time to institutionalize changes of this importance.
The steps we are announcing today are significant. And in many ways, they are an affirmation of where we have been heading as a department for more than 10 years. Nevertheless, it will take leadership and it will take professionalism to effectively implement these changes. I am confident in our ability to do that, because I am confident in the leadership that General Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have demonstrated throughout this process.
This has truly been a team effort, and I deeply admire the extremely thorough and considerate approach that they have taken. I want to express my deepest thanks to Marty Dempsey for his leadership and all of the service chiefs who has been working on this issue and as a group came forward with the recommendation that we are implementing today.
Our men and women in uniform could not ask for more from their leaders in uniform. I fundamentally believe that our military is more effective when success is based solely on ability and qualifications and on performance.
When I look at my grandsons and my granddaughters - you know, I've got six grandchildren, three grandsons and three granddaughters - I want each of them to have the same chance to succeed at whatever they want to do. In life, as we all know, there are no guarantees of success. Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.
By committing ourselves to that principle, we are renewing our commitment to the American values our servicemembers fight and die to defend. As Secretary, when I've gone to Bethesda to visit wounded warriors, and when I've gone to Arlington to bury our dead, there is no distinction that's made between the sacrifices of men and women in uniform. They serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality.
By opening up more opportunities for people to serve in uniform, we are making our military stronger and we are making America stronger. We deeply honor all of those past generations, combat soldiers and Marines, who fought and died for our freedom. And in many ways, their sacrifice has ensured that the next greatest generation will be one of men and women who will fight and die together to protect this nation. And that is what freedom is all about.