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Regulations against women in combat roles are "outdated assumptions and stereotypes about the proper roles of men and women" and their respective talents, says Gill.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.
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.
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 email@example.com.