For the first time in the history of the nation's wars, American women will be allowed to pick up a weapon and fight on the front lines.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to remove the military's ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs.

Panetta will announce the changes todaybut they will not happen overnight. Individual branches will develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions and some jobs may open as soon as this year.

Allowing women, who comprise 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel, to serve on the front lines was seen by many to be one of the last major barriers of the long-held belief that they shouldn't be in combat.

"I've seen a number of women over the years become commanders, fly planes, do many roles that were allowed only for men over the years, so now this is sort of the last frontier for women being able to serve in combat ... this is actually going to change the policy in the Department of Defense, so I'm very excited," said Ruth Wong, acting director of the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, said Panetta's announcement will especially help women get promoted in the military.

"One thing (the military) will look at is the roles they have had and often times people will not get promoted" for not being in combat, said Lieu, who served in the Air Force from 1995 to 1999.

"It opens up to the best qualified person to be in the position to serve our national security. I think it's about time."

Panetta's decision gives the military until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

Olga Ambriz-Schiller, a former Woodland Hills resident who retired from the Army in 2010 after 21 years, said she agrees there are some women who will be up to the challenge, but they will face numerous obstacles.

"She's going to have to be pretty damned strong and they might give her a hard time and she might have to be better than the average Joe because she's going to have to prove herself," Ambriz-Schiller said.

"Somebody is going to give her a hard time along the way."

But some veterans disagree with Panetta's plan. Among them is Billy Allen, a 72-year-old Army veteran.

While nursing a beer at American Legion Post 710 in San Bernardino, Allen, who says as a black man he experienced racism at times in the military, said allowing women on the front lines would create conflicts for men on the battlefield.

Allen said men will be more prone to protect a woman at the expense of the group.

"No, I don't think it's a good idea," he said. "The entire point of it would be different. I'm going to protect her, the individual, not the `them."'

Men and women are different, and each have their place in the military, Allen said. And that's not together on the front lines.

"Everyone says they want to be equal," Allen said. "Everybody is not equal anyway. I don't go into the women's restroom. They don't go into the men's."

An existing issue that some say needs to be addressed is that women and men have different fitness requirements for entering the military.

"Women already have different standards to follow in support units," said Michael Navarro, a San Bernardino resident and former infantryman.

Current Army fitness standards for men and women are significantly different in some areas.

In order for someone from 17 to 26 years old to get maximum score in the two-mile run, a woman must complete it in 15 minutes and 36 seconds, while a man's standard is 13 minutes. For those from 22 to 26 years old, men must complete 75 pushups for maximum credit, while a woman's standard is 46.

"They have to do less then men for Army standards when it comes to physical training, but if they want this role and can pass the same physical training a man goes through, then they should be allowed to serve this country in a combat role honorably," Navarro said.

Former National Guard Lt. Chris Fisher, a combat veteran and member of the Montclair Police Department, said he feels the double standards for fitness in place throughout the military's physical training should be replaced in order for women to take these expanded roles.

"As long as women have the same physical fitness test standards that men have, I'm all for it," Fisher said.

"They've been there quite a while anyways in support roles directly attached to the combat roles, so if they can hack it then more power to them."

In law enforcement, there aren't the same double standards as in the military when it comes to physical fitness and performance, Fisher said.

"A male cop or a female cop," he said. "A cop is a cop, no double standard there."

Panetta's move expands the Pentagon's action nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommendation overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.

The decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.

Ambriz-Schiller enlisted in the Army in 1988 and faced numerous obstacles, such as sexual harassment from her male and female peers.

"I pushed myself a lot and I had to push myself to keep up with the guys," she said.

"But I guess times change and it's something we're going to have to go through and we'll see what happens."

Staff writers Beatriz Valuenzuela, Sandra Emerson, Josh Dulaney and The Associated Press contributed to this report.