Ten years ago Air Force pilot Kim Campbell, the daughter of San Jose's then-councilman and now Mayor Chuck Reed, was flying a mission over Iraq when the rear of her A-10 was struck by a rocket. Not known as a Warthog for its grace, the plane wasn't going to glide home -- but Campbell deftly used manual controls to coax it back to her base and a hero's welcome. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Just try telling Campbell, now a lieutenant colonel, that women aren't fit for combat.

On Thursday Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will announce that all military combat jobs, not just the Air Force, will be open to women, who in fact already have served in ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Restrictions have gradually been eased over time, but full equality in all service branches now has the unanimous support of the Joint Chiefs, and that is overdue.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, a member of a female engagement team, during a mission in Marjah, Afghanistan, 2010 .
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, a member of a female engagement team, during a mission in Marjah, Afghanistan, 2010 . (REUTERS/Lance Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum/U.S. Marine)

Being denied some combat assignments and other front-line duties limits the rank to which service women can aspire, which in turn limits the talent pool the military can draw from.

Removing gender discrimination simply means equal opportunity. If individuals can't qualify for certain kinds of duty because of physical limitations or other factors, they won't get the job, whether men or women. But some and perhaps many women will qualify for combat roles now off limits, and America's military will be stronger for it.

One of the greatest national embarrassments today is the number of sexual assaults on women in the armed forces. The top brass still aren't dealing with it adequately. It continues even though the Kim Campbells of the world earn respect as individuals.

The more our major institutions like the Pentagon show respect for women by ending discrimination against them, the more that respect will permeate society. This alone is reason to celebrate the military's sensible, if belated, advance.