Lifting the military’s ban on women in combat may be Defense Secretary’s Leon E. Panetta’s final accomplishment as he prepares to leave office, but if that is the case, he’s leaving with a flourish.

Allowing women to serve on the front lines in an official combat capacity takes a sledgehammer to the military’s “brass ceiling” that has limited the promotion of women. Changes won’t take place immediately but a gradual shift is welcome.

The move overturns a 1994 Pentagon rule restricting women from artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles. This means hundreds of thousands of additional jobs will be open to women. It also means a clearer path to career advancement. Leading a combat unit is an important element when considering promotions. Not being able to fill front-line jobs leaves women underrepresented at the top levels of the military.

The irony, of course, was always that while women were excluded from combat roles, supposedly keeping them off the front lines of battle, women have been fighting and dying in their support roles.

Women comprise about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel, and more than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan and neighboring nations. Of the more than 6,600 military personnel who have been killed in those wars, 152 have been women.

The story of Democratic Rep. L. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois illustrates the point of women in combat. Duckworth, an Army veteran, lost both legs and part of an arm from injuries she suffered as a helicopter pilot while fighting in Iraq. She chose to fly because it was one of the few combat jobs open to women. Duckworth showed her mettle on the battlefield and, after an ugly battle against tea party favorite Joe Walsh, is holding her own in Congress.

Duckworth’s story illustrates how women have played an important role on the battlefield and continue to do so in Afghanistan.

Women should still have to meet the physical requirements on the combat jobs, for their own safety and the safety of their colleagues. It should be noted that when the Marine Corps went looking for women to endure its infantry course last year, two volunteered, and both failed to complete the course. There probably won’t be a surge of female applicants for combat jobs. But they ought to get the same chances as a man to serve their country.

The tide has been turning, ever so slowly. Two lawsuits were filed last year challenging the Pentagon’s ban on women serving in combat. And, despite past patronizing statements about the ability of men to focus when they have women to protect (see statements from former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum), America has taken note of the contribution women are making and will continue to make on the front lines of battle.

Women have been fighting, getting injured and dying next to men for the past decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s past time to allow them on the front lines in an official capacity.