Over the last decade, 292,000 of the 2.5 million U.S. military personnel who have served in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women. Of those, 152 have been killed and 958 have been wounded.

So, to some extent, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's announcement Thursday that the Pentagon will lift its ban on assigning women to combat units simply reflects facts on the ground.

But in another sense, the decision is a blow for equity. Because women are not formally assigned to certain units, they do not accrue benefits such as faster promotions and higher pay that come with those positions, regardless of whether or not they actually are involved in combat.

Women comprise 14 percent of the armed forces. Many are "attached" but not assigned to combat units as medics, intelligence officers, military police and in many other roles, bearing risks but not receiving commensurate benefits.

The step also is part of a progression. Due to gradual elimination of other restrictions, women now serve on warships, including submarines, and pilot warplanes that could be in harm's way at any time.

The prohibition lifted by Panetta barred the assignment of women to any unit below the brigade level, or units of about 3,500 troops. That effectively eliminated their assignment to about 230,000 positions in smaller units, in areas such as infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineering and special operations.

Chiefs of each service will have until next January to develop integration plans. The Pentagon emphasized that it will maintain physical requirements for all combat roles.

This is a reprise of an earlier integration effort - President Harry Truman's decision to end the segregation of African-American troops. Just as those soldiers had earned the right to equal status, the record of generations of women who have served their country in uniform is all the proof that Panetta needs to take this step.