Allowing women to serve in combat roles will strengthen the U.S. military’s ability to win wars, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday, shortly before his official announcement of the landmark change.

“Our military is more capable, and our force is more powerful, when we use all of the great diverse strengths of the American people,” Panetta said at a Pentagon ceremony in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Every person in today’s military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die, for our nation’s defense,” he said. “We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified. Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out an assigned mission. Everyone deserves that chance.”

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