Legal challenge filed against policy excluding women from combat

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The Defense Department’s longstanding policy barring women from thousands of ground combat positions was challenged today in a federal lawsuit by four servicewomen and the Service Women’s Action Network.

The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

The four servicemembers have all done tours in Iraq or Afghanistan – some deploying multiple times – where they served in combat or led female troops who went on missions with combat infantrymen. Their careers and opportunities have been limited by a policy that does not grant them the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts. The combat exclusion policy also makes it harder for them to do their jobs.

One plaintiff, Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, is an Air National Guard search and rescue helicopter pilot who flew Medevac missions in Afghanistan. In 2009, her helicopter was shot down while rescuing three injured soldiers, and she and her crew were forced to engage in combat. Hegar, who returned fire after sustaining shrapnel wounds, was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, and was returned to flying status within a week. Despite that, the combat exclusion policy prevents her from seeking some combat leadership positions.

“Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, and I have proven my ability every step of the way,” said Hegar. “The ability to serve in combat has very little to do with gender or any other generalization. It has everything to do with heart, character, ability, determination and dedication. This policy is an injustice to the women who have come before us and who continue to put their lives on the line for their country.” Women make up more than 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel, yet the rule categorically excludes them from more than 238,000 positions. Consequently, commanders are stymied in their ability to mobilize their troops effectively. In addition, servicewomen are:

  • denied training and recognition for their service
  • put at a disadvantage for promotions
  • prevented from competing for positions for which they have demonstrated their suitability and from advancing in rank.

“These women served their country bravely and honorably and have demonstrated their ability to distinguish themselves under fire just as much as their male comrades,” said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “This antiquated policy doesn’t reflect the nature of modern warfare or the actual contributions of women in uniform.

Two of the plaintiffs led the Marine Corps Female Engagement Teams (FET) in Afghanistan. The FETs lived with and conducted missions with combat infantrymen. Another plaintiff was sent on similar missions in the Army, accompanying combat troops in Afghanistan. Because these were considered temporary duties outside of the servicewomen’s official specialties, their combat experience is not given official recognition.

“It’s unfair that a serviceman can be promoted for putting his life on the line in a combat situation, but a servicewoman who performs just as well on the battlefield is told that her service doesn’t count,” said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

Other plaintiffs include:

  • Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell, who served in Afghanistan as the officer in charge of an FET. Her teams lived with infantrymen for several weeks and frequently encountered combat situations.
  • Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who served in Afghanistan, where she went with soldiers on combat missions in remote mountain areas, and in Iraq, where her vehicle was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Hunt was awarded the Purple Heart for shrapnel injuries sustained in that attack.
  • Marine 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell deployed to Afghanistan, where she led an FET that was regularly in danger of drawing enemy fire, being ambushed or hit by IEDs. Although the teams she commanded lived and worked alongside infantrymen, they were prevented from fully participating in training with those troops.

“Combat exclusion is an archaic policy which does not reflect the realities of modern warfare, the values which our military espouses, or the actual capabilities of our service women,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network and former Marine captain. “Rather than enforcing a merit-based system, today’s military bars all women regardless of their qualifications from access to prestigious and career-enhancing assignments, positions and schools, and is thus directly responsible for making servicewomen second-class citizens.”

The full complaint can be found here.

More information on this case, including biographies of the plaintiffs, can be found here.

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