ACLU Sues Pentagon Over Women in Combat

Female troop policy is unconstitutional, the civil liberties group says.

Female soldiers train on a firing range while wearing new body armor on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in Fort Campbell, Ky.

Female soldiers train on a firing range while wearing new body armor in September in Fort Campbell, Ky.

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America's counterinsurgency wars have reshaped many aspects of its military. In 2005, the Army began issuing Combat Action Badges to any soldier, including women, outside of infantry units who actively engaged with the enemy. It sought to recognize those who were ineligible for the coveted Combat Infantry Badge awarded only to infantrymen or Special Forces soldiers who had seen hostile fire.

The Marine Corps temporarily lifted the ban on female Marine officers attending the grueling Infantry Officers Course this fall, as part of a 2011 congressional defense provision that the military studies prohibitions on women. The two inaugural students washed out within a week because they couldn't keep up with the harsh physical demands of the training. The Marine Corps says it wants to test 90 more women, the Washington Times reports, but is concerned that many may not volunteer.

No women are scheduled to enter the next class, beginning in January.

In February the Pentagon overturned its "co-location prohibition," allowing women into roles that had previously been off-limits because they would have to live with men. It also allowed women to serve in combat support functions at the battalion level. This initiative opened up 14,325 new jobs to women, the Pentagon says.

[Related: U.S., Afghanistan Start Talks on Status of U.S. Troops]

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed the military services to update him in November on the effect of the newly opened positions, as well as on other remaining barriers.

"Secretary Panetta remains strongly committed to examining the expansion of roles for women in the U.S. military, as evidenced by the recent step of opening up thousands of more assignments to women," says Panetta spokeswoman Eileen Lainez in an E-mail to U.S. News.

"The recent openings are the beginning, not the end, of a process," she says. "The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women. Our goal is to ensure that the mission is met with the best qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."

The Constitution prohibits the government from having blanket rules excluding members of a group from opportunity when it's based on a characteristic, such as sex, says Gill.

"What the policy is doing is preventing [women] from getting the proper training, from getting recognition, from using this combat experience that they're getting to advance within the military," she says. "We're not saying that any particular woman has a constitutional right to a specific position, it is really about the categorical exclusion and how that policy is outdated and doesn't match the reality of modern warfare."

A RAND Corp. study included in the Marine Corps research says there is no direct correlation between a female officer's inability to have a combat job and her likelihood of reaching the pay grade of colonel.

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  • Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at