Suing to Serve: Military Women Fight Combat Exclusion Policy

While serving in Afghanistan, Marine First Lieutenant Zoe Bedell and her Female Entanglement Team of 46 women worked within an insurgent-heavy area to improve the quality of education and health care for Afghan women and children while also gathering intelligence. In Iraq, Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt (who works with the Army’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program when stateside), earned a Purple Heart when she and her reconstruction team were hit by a roadside IED. And Air Guard Major Mary Jennings Hegar, also a Purple Heart recipient, is credited with safely evacuating wounded fellow soldiers despite the helicopter she was copiloting being shot down while running a Medevac mission in Afghanistan.

Clearly, these women have seen combat. They have filled a variety of military roles, putting their lives on the line. Yet, an antiquated Pentagon ruling bars them from officially serving in direct combat jobs. So the three aforementioned veterans, along with Marine First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell (who leaves active duty this week) filed a federal lawsuit with the ACLU earlier this week to end this exclusionary regulation. The lawsuit reads

The combat exclusion policy is based on outdated stereotypes of women and ignores the realities of the modern military and battlefield conditions. Nearly a century after women first earned the right of suffrage, the combat exclusion policy still denies women a core component of full citizenship–serving on equal footing in the military defense of our nation.

Women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade and, despite what policy dictates, have seen combat by nature of their assigned missions. If a woman soldier is attached to a combat unit with men, she will likely experience as much combat as the men in her unit but will not have the same access to leadership positions or opportunities for advancement. According to the lawsuit, women are excluded from 238,000 military jobs. Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, told the Huffington Post:

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. 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 service women second-class citizens.

As Bhagwati suggests, the military perpetuates discrimination against women by banning them from combat without exception and, arguably, inhibits itself from choosing the most qualified person for a job. Bedell, a Princeton University graduate now working in finance, feels the gender-based exclusion threatens our country’s safety:

It is not only punishing women by not recognizing the service they are performing, but it is also hampering our ability to fight effectively.

Hegar agrees:

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.

An injustice indeed, considering 150 women service members have died in Afghanistan or Iraq. The courageous women who serve our country should do so on equal footing with their men counterparts.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Mysterious Stranger says:

    Well, I am all for women serving in the United States Armed Forces, but readers of the Ms. Magazine Blog need to understand some things:

    Fist of all, the United States Department of Defense is not a sociologist organization, the DoD cares more about putting boots on the ground quickly and defeating our enemies. I am not saying that it is necessarily right, but the reality is that the military is more concerned with fighting, not with being socially progressive. Furthermore, it also depends on a woman’s Military Occupational Specialty and Armed Services Vocational Aptidude Batter score, it takes more than “heart” to fight in today’s modern warfare. Believe me, I wish it only took “heart.”

    Secondly, (as aforementioned) I am for a woman’s right to choose, but I can’t see how any woman would actually WANT to be in active combat. Why would women WANT to be where all the bullets, gore, death, and broken bodies from both sides are? As a man, I really don’t know; Ladies, do you actually WANT to witness the carnage? Do you want to hold your best platonic friend in your arms as she/he dies? Because that is what you’ll get if women are allowed in combat.

    • Mysterious Stranger says:

      Another ting, I forgot to mention it earlier. THERE NO CONSTITUIONAL RIGHT TO SERVE. Unbelievable? Well, it’s true, male or female, gay or straight, there is NOTHING in the United States Constitution, or any government document, that gives you the right to serve. That is because from 1775-1973, there was only conscription (a.k.a, the draft) which had the philosophy that it was the citizen’s obligation to serve in the military when the country needed to fight. With the draft being abolished after Vietnam, the Law has not changed. That Law is that the DoD reserves the right to decide who can and cannot serve, and volunteers have to meet the DoD’s standards or they will be turned away. The point is that there is no “right to serve.”

  2. rita brady kiefer says:

    All soldiers regardless of their gender should be allowed to serve. The soldiers who wlong with the ACLU have the right to sue to protect that right.

    • Mysterious Stranger says:

      AS I said, there is no “right to serve,” in the U.S. Constitution. I wish it were different, but it isn’t

  3. I am a woman currently serving in the Army. I fully support women being able to serve in combat positions in the military as long as they are physically able. What I mean is that if women want to serve in combat units, then there should not be a different physical fitness standard for women wishing to serve in active combat. If you cannot keep up with your male counterparts physically, then you should not be on the front lines. You will slow the unit down and put them in harms way.

    I’m not sure if many of you remember, but there was a female (Shannon Faulkner) who sued the Citadel (all male military university) because she was not allowed admission to the university based on her sex. After many appeals, the Supreme Court held that the male only admission policy was unconstitutional and she was then admitted to the Citadel. However, after only being there for one week, she resigned because she was unable to handle the physical stress and regime of the military university. Although she did pave the wave for future women who want to attend at the Citadel, she did not set a good example.

    If women are going to serve on active combat units (Rangers, Special Forces, SEALS, etc), lets pick someone who will not disappoint or disgrace the female sex.

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