WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military's ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

Minnesota U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar responded to the announcement with a written statement: "This is a major milestone for our women in uniform, opening up doors that had previously been shut.  We thank all of our service members for their sacrifice and commitment to our country."

And spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard Lt. Col. Kevin Olson released this statement: "I can confirm media reports that the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military.

This policy change will initiate a process whereby the services will develop plans to implement this decision, which was made by the Secretary of Defense upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  implementation.

After the Department of Defense provides more information during a media conference tomorrow, the Minnesota National Guard will respond to press requests for reaction from currently-serving soldiers and airmen."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.