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Women in all branches of the military soon will have unprecedented opportunities to serve on the front lines of the nation’s wars.

Leon Panetta, in one of his last acts as President Obama’s defense secretary, is preparing to announce the policy change Thursday, which would open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war, the Pentagon confirmed.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta’s decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

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