The American Civil Liberties Union announced Tuesday it is suing the Department of Defense to lift immediately all restrictions on women serving in combat units.
The military does not currently allow women to serve in ground combat units, such as infantry, artillery, armor or as special operations commandos. Recent wars without clear front lines have frequently pushed women assigned to support roles directly into the fighting.
The suit, which the ACLU announced at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, follows the military's ongoing analysis of what would happen if it introduced women into combat roles. The ACLU says the Pentagon is not moving quickly enough and the policy itself is unconstitutional.
"It's harming women in the field now," says Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney with ACLU Northern California, which is participating in the suit. "Significant numbers of women have fought alongside their male counterparts in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in fact, are fighting in combat situations."
"Our clients in this case have served in capacities where they're shot at by enemy fire, they're engaged, they're attached to combat units," she adds. "They're fighting in exactly the same circumstances as men but they're not recognized for that work."
Regulations against women in combat roles are "outdated assumptions and stereotypes about the proper roles of men and women" and their respective talents, says Gill.
The Pentagon does not comment on litigation, a Department of Defense spokeswoman says.
Zoe Bedell is a retired Marine Corps captain and is among the plaintiffs in the case. She served on active duty from 2007 to 2011. Bedell was twice deployed to Afghanistan, where she led Female Engagement Teams that patrolled with infantry units to engage with Afghan women.
"I left in 2011 when my active commitment was complete, in large part because I felt the combat exclusion policy limited my opportunities in the military," she said in an E-mail to U.S. News. "I would be evaluated for assignments based not on my qualifications or accomplishments, but on my gender. This didn't make sense for me personally or professionally, and I frankly also don't think it makes sense for our military."
The practice is not only unconstitutional, but impractical, she says.
"Why would we want to stop our military from selecting the top people for jobs?" Bedell says. "We are asking for the chance to compete for the same jobs as men. This benefits our military by having people in positions not because of an irrelevant factor like gender, but because of their demonstrated abilities."
Other plaintiffs include Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, a helicopter rescue pilot with the Air National Guard who was shot down in Afghanistan in 2009 while rescuing three injured soldiers; Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who patrolled with soldiers on combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and Marine 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell, who was also an FET leader in Afghanistan. Hegar and Hunt were both awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in action.
Female troops have served critical functions in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where some communities limit the interaction between local women and male soldiers. Gill says the military's policy "artificially limits" the work these women can do and the recognition and career advancement that comes from it, which creates a "brain drain."
"It's not only doing a disservice to women who put their lives on the line for their country, but it's also harming our armed services," she says. "Commanders in the field are constrained because they can't use the best talent they have for missions because of this policy."
The ACLU is filing the complaint in the Federal District Court in San Francisco for a ruling that the policy is unconstitutional and an injunction to prohibit the Defense Department from enforcing the policy.