Bloomberg News

Military Limits on Women in Ground Combat Challenged

November 27, 2012

Military Limits on Women in Ground Combat Roles Challenged

Female marine soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Golf Company patrol in Basabad, Helmand Province. Photographer: Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. military’s restrictions on females in ground combat roles are unconstitutional, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit on behalf of four servicewomen, the second such case filed this year.

An Air National Guard helicopter pilot, Marine Corps captain and an Army staff sergeant who sued all served in Afghanistan and faced combat situations, and two were wounded and awarded Purple Hearts. Yet they are excluded from certain positions and can’t pursue leadership roles and promotions, the ACLU said today in a statement. The complaint, filed in federal court in Northern California, couldn’t be immediately confirmed in court records.

“The policy is outdated and doesn’t match the reality of modern warfare,” Ariela Migdal, an ACLU lawyer, said in a phone conference. “Women are already fighting alongside their male” counterparts.

Women make up more than 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel and are excluded from more than 238,000 positions because of the restrictions, the ACLU said. About 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and at least 144 have been killed and more than 860 wounded, according to the Pentagon.

Eileen Lainez, a Defense Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit. She said more than 14,000 previously closed positions have been opened to women.

Panetta Orders

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed the services to provide an update in November evaluating the newly opened positions and assessing barriers to a gender-neutral assignment policy, she said.

“The recent openings are the beginning, not the end, of a process,” Lainez said by e-mail. “We recognize that over the last decade of war, women have contributed in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission.

The plaintiffs include Mary Jennings Hegar, 36, whose helicopter was shot down in 2009 as she rescued injured soldiers, according to the ACLU. Hegar engaged in combat in the incident and was awarded the Purple Heart, the ACLU said.

Plaintiff Jennifer Hunt, 28, went on combat missions in remote mountain areas in Afghanistan, and her vehicle was hit by an explosive device during a tour in Iraq, it said.

“The shrapnel didn’t stop and not hit me because I was a female,” Hunt, whose face, arms and back were struck, said in a phone interview.

Afghanistan War

Plaintiffs Zoe Bedell, 27, and Colleen Farrell, 26, both led Marine Corps female teams in Afghanistan that lived and worked and worked alongside infantrymen, according to a copy of the complaint.

A lawsuit was filed on similar grounds in May in Washington by two Army reservists. The California case is being brought by mid-career servicewomen and is directed at the Pentagon, while the plaintiffs in the earlier case are senior-level and are targeting the Army, ACLU attorney Elizabeth Gill said.

The Defense Department is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit in Washington, saying policies on military readiness should be decided by the services, not a judge, according to court filings.

Women are restricted from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is direct combat, according to court filings. The Pentagon in May granted more than 1,100 additional exceptions to the policy, and prohibitions were rescinded on assigning women in non-combat jobs to locations with combat units, opening 14,325 positions, Lainez said.

In the California case, the ACLU said it seeks a judge’s order declaring that the restrictions violate the constitutional right to equal protection of the law.

The case is Hegar v. Panetta, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.

To contact the reporter on this story: Karen Gullo in San Francisco at kgullo@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.


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