U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Sharon T. Swartworth, 43, was killed Nov. 7, 2003, when her Black Hawk helicopter went down near the Tigris River in Iraq. She had been with the Army 26 years. Her father, from Litchfield, described at the time how she had previously avoided death on 9/11 when terrorists directed a hijacked plane to hit the Pentagon.

About 140 years earlier, women from Maine saw battle during the Civil War. Some disguised themselves as men to fight. Others put themselves in harm’s way as battlefield medics. Augusta Foster, a Maine nurse, had her horse shot out from beneath her during the First Battle of Bull Run and continued on as a field nurse, according to “The Women and the Crisis: Women of the North in the Civil War,” by Agatha Young.

Women have proved their abilities through every war, whether they were required to or not. A woman who is able to serve in a combat position should be allowed — and trained, equipped — to serve. So the announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Thursday afternoon that the United States is lifting the ban on women in combat is welcome. No one wants women or men to be put in harm’s way, but it is time for greater fairness.

The change won’t happen immediately, and probably not all positions will become available, but the decision is monumental. Already, 146 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many more wounded. If that’s not combat, what is? Women serve as officers on submarines. They are fighter pilots. U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

“We’ve seen them in combat,” Panetta said. “I think that gives us a head start here.”

It gives the military more than a head start in its planning process; it provides a strong, underlying reason for the transformation.

The announcement leads the country toward greater gender parity, which includes access to more economic and leadership opportunities. Lifting the ban will open up more than 200,000 jobs and remove some of the barriers currently preventing women from reaching command positions. We hope it also provides women more pay, fulfillment and chances to prove themselves.

And having more women in leadership roles will mean, we hope, more attention to one of the most significant — and underreported — problems in the military: sexual assaults. The Department of Defense estimates that each year about 19,000 rapes and other sexual assaults occur. The numbers show that the greatest threats don’t always come from the front lines but from the people who are supposed to be their comrades.

“We’ve been on a long journey toward achieving equality,” Panetta said Thursday, going on to describe how the military overcame racial segregation and ended the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibiting gay servicemen and women from serving openly. The changes didn’t come easily. They required sacrifice, dedication and leadership, he said, and the same will be true for women.

But we already know of their sacrifice, dedication and leadership.