The U.S. military will soon announce the end of a 19-year ban on women in combat, according to a senior defense official, a sweeping change that appears to recognize the reality that female troops have experienced since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the timing, said that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “are expected to announce the lifting of the direct combat exclusion rule for women in the military.”

The official added that the announcement, which could come Thursday, “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.”

Like the elimination of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibiting gay men and women from serving openly, the decision represents another far-reaching reversal of military policy and is emblematic of the changing mores and culture in the American armed services.