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The combat exclusion policy is based on outdated stereotypes of women and ignores the realities of the modern military and battlefield conditions.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.


Rachel Kassenbrock is a writer who works at the Feminist Majority Foundation and blogs for Ms. Follow her on Twitter at @rkassenbrock.