When Maryland National Guard Capt. Cara Kupcho first enlisted in the military 18 years ago, she wanted to drive a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a 30-ton, armor-busting tank.
"I like things that go boom," she explained Thursday. "I like tanks."
But as a woman, Kupcho was barred from joining any of the armored units that used the vehicles. She became a mechanic instead, able to maintain tanks, but prohibited from driving them into battle.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced plans Thursday to end the long-standing prohibition on servicewomen in direct combat roles, opening hundreds of thousands of jobs formerly limited to men.
"In our democracy, I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation," Panetta said. "And every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity."
The decision to end the so-called combat exclusion policy followed the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Panetta directed the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to submit plans to implement the change by May 15.
The services have until January 2016 to declare exceptions for roles that they believe should remain off-limits to women — but it was unclear whether they would.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, suggested that women would be allowed to compete for spots not only in armored, artillery and infantry units, but in such elite Special Operations organizations as the Army's Delta Force and the Navy's SEALs.
"I think we all believe that there will be women who can meet those standards," he said.
While women have been officially barred from units that engage in direct combat with the enemy, commanders have routinely tapped women to work alongside the men who staff those units.
Of the more than 280,000 women who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 150 have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded.
Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, a Gaithersburg reservist, earned a Purple Heart in 2007 when her Humvee rolled over a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
Hunt, who also joined male soldiers on village raids in Afghanistan to search any females they found, is one of four U.S. servicewomen who sued Panetta last year to end the exclusion policy.
It was unclear whether that lawsuit or a similar one filed by two other servicewomen last year played a role in Panetta's decision.
The Pentagon had begun in recent years to expand opportunities for women.
Last year, the Army opened about 14,500 jobs previously off-limits to women, including intelligence and personnel officers and artillery and tank mechanics, and began recruiting female pilots and crew chiefs this month to fly Special Operations helicopters.
The Marine Corps allowed women to attend its grueling Infantry Officer Course and began assigning women to train in certain combat-related jobs with infantry, artillery, tank and other units for testing purposes.
But those were small steps compared with the announcement Thursday, which could open about 238,000 jobs, most of them in the Army and Marines, the "tip of the spear" of the U.S. military.
"It's a great opportunity for women," Maryland National Guard Sgt. Myoung Fisher said. "I'm glad to be working in an organization where there are no limits to what I can do."