Panetta Says Hillary Clinton Inspired His Women-in-Combat Decision

By Susan Jones | February 15, 2013 | 7:21 AM EST

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta honor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the Defense Department's Medal for Distinguished Public Service during a ceremony at the Pentagon on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

( – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Hillary Clinton inspired his decision to allow women in combat.

“And in many ways, I have to tell you, it was her inspiration that encouraged me to move forward to be able to bring down the last barriers for women in the Department of Defense and to give them the ability to have a chance to engage in combat. I thank you for that inspiration,” Panetta told Clinton at a Pentagon ceremony on Thursday.

Panetta bestowed the Defense Department’s highest honor--the Distinguished Civilian Service Award--on the former secretary of state.

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Panetta praised Clinton as “one of the most informed, most passionate, and most dedicated public servants that I've had the privilege to serve alongside. She has devoted her life to expanding opportunities for everyone, to build a better future for this country and the world, because she believes everyone deserves the chance to fulfill their dreams and their aspirations.”

Last month, Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, signed an order giving women the same opportunities to serve in front-line combat positions.

"Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance," Panetta said.