Hear them roar! Troops sue Panetta over combat ban on women

Arguing the Pentagon is not moving fast enough to lift historic bans on American women in combat, four current and retired female troops with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to challenge the Defense Department and force President Obama’s hand.

Earlier this year, DOD opened roughly 14,000 positions to women, acknowledging that plenty of women have served admirably in combat over the last decade. The Pentagon and the armed services, including the Marine Corps, are studying how to allow more women into combat roles, looking at physical standards, among other factors. But roughly 238,000 military combat jobs remain closed to women, by DOD’s own count.

“That falls short, it does a disservice,” said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which is providing legal counsel to the plaintiffs.

The argument behind the suit filed against Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, by Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell, Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, Marine 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell, Air Force Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, and the Service Women’s Action Network, Migdal said, is that DOD’s policy “doesn’t match the reality of modern warfare.”

“Women…are already fighting alongside their male counterparts,” she said. The Pentagon concedes that point, but while DOD studies whether and how to incorporate women further into combat officially, the plaintiffs argued that field commanders already place women in combat using “legal fiction” to skirt the rules.

As a result, women face an unequal workplace, the group claimed.

“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,” Migdal argued.

So if the Pentagon knows this is a problem it wants to fix, why file a lawsuit now?

Migdal said enough servicewomen who have spent the past decade at war have come back realizing their careers, reputations and recognitions remained limited solely because of what they feel is an outdated gender-based policy.

“It’s sort of unbelievable that the policy that has remained largely unchanged since 1994 is still the same policy, even though so much of these wars has changed how women fought.”

Hegar is combat rescue pilot with three combat tours in Afghanistan over two deployments. “My gender has never been a factor in accomplishing my unit’s mission,” she said. Most men cared about whether she could do her job but “the handful” who cared about her gender, she claimed, “used the combat-exclusion policy” to prevent her from doing her job.

“When we were pinned down at our crash site,” she recounted, nobody asked anyone’s gender.

The other women on the call told similar stories of holding their own. “My Marines fought back with the [male] Marines…everything that the men did,” one said, but failing identify herself on a conference call with reporters.

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network and a former Marine captain, argued that by now women often choose to leave the military after one or two tours of duty “because of the constant reminder of their second-class status.” Moreover, she laid blame for the “brass ceiling” on the Pentagon’s continued sanctioning of gender-based job assignments.

“Combat exclusion directly contributes to the culture of harassment,” Bhagwati argued. Women are exposed to a hostile workplace with men who employ an inherently hostile vocabulary with “demeaning language” and “constant suggestions that they can’t do the same job.” Even the Marine Corps’ segregated basic training, she argued, “doesn’t set women up for success.”

Still, the women who fought for their country and are now plaintiffs against their own government said women have managed to perform, despite the Pentagon’s lingering fears.

One of the women who successfully completed Marine Corps training with men likened the Pentagon’s fears to the period before the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay servicemembers was lifted. She survived it, as did her male counterparts.

“The sun came up the next day,” she said.

John D McHugh/Getty Images