ACLU Sues Military to Lift Female Combat Exclusion

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

women in combatThe American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit to force the military to allow women to serve in combat units. The ACLU asserts that the policy that bars women from combat billets is “outdated” and discriminatory, and that women are denied promotion opportunities as a result. About 10 percent of the 205,000 servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan are female.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of four individual plaintiffs and the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN.

The complaint itself, Hegar, et al. v. Panetta, can be downloaded here.

Earlier this year, the Marine Corps opened up its Infantry Officer Basic School to women. Two women volunteered. One failed the initial endurance test, while the other withdrew for medical reasons not disclosed by the Marine Corps.

Highlights from the ACLU’s complaint:

“The DoD adopted a policy in 1994 that categorically excluded women from most combat positions, primarily in the Army and Marine Corps. This policy, with minor changes, remains in effect today. Under this policy, women are barred from being assigned to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”

“The combat exclusion policy is based on outdated stereotypes of women and ignores the realities of the modern military and battlefield conditions.”

“Those already serving in combat are not only barred from formal assignment to combat arms positions for which they have already proven themselves suited, but they are also denied the official recognition they need to advance their careers. They are prohibited from applying to certain schools, such as infantry schools, further limiting their potential for career advancement. Moreover, even though women are already serving in combat, the policy creates a presumption that women are not serving in combat, which further disadvantages women compared to men.”

“The DoD’s policy is one of the last vestiges of federal de jure discrimination against women. 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.”

“The DoD’s official and categorical exclusion of women from assignment to ground combat units harms the individual Plaintiffs, and thousands of servicewomen like them, in a variety of ways, including by denying them opportunities, training, and recognition during active service, and benefits after they have retired from service.”

“For example, over 80% of general officers in the Army came from combat arms positions, from which women are excluded.”

“A woman’s combat experience is not recognized as such, because she is only ‘attached’ but not ‘assigned’ to ground combat units, or she commands teams  that serve ‘in support of’ but are not ‘part of’ ground combat units. For some servicewomen, such as Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt, their combat service conducting missions with infantry troops had no formal designation at all. For others, such as Captain Alexandra Zoe Bedell and First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, their combat service leading FETs took place entirely outside of their official career specialties. Because of the combat exclusion policy, the combat service of these and many other women cannot be given official recognition within their career fields and therefore cannot be considered in the same way it would be for men in promotion decisions.”

“As a result of the policy, women have faced challenges in obtaining benefits and treatment for combat-related stress, among other benefits, because those processing veterans’ claims do not believe that women can be ‘in combat’.”

The ACLU is asking the courts to declare the Pentagon’s ban on women in combat billets to be unconstitutional, citing the right to equal protection under the law arising from the due process clause of the 5th amendment. The ACLU further asks that the courts prohibit the Pentagon from enforcing the ban in the future.

The ACLU filed suit in federal court in the Northern District of California.

The Plaintiffs

Major Mary Hegar, a California Air National Guardsman and helicopter pilot and veteran of hundreds of air medevac missions. She received a Purple Heart when her helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan. She is also a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross with a “V” device, indicating valor in combat.

Captain Zoe Bedell, USMCR. A logistics officer, Captain Bedell deployed twice to Afghanistan, where she served as an officer in charge of Female Engagement Teams (FETs). Captain Bedell states that she left the active duty Marine Corps because of the combat exclusion policy. She now works for Foros, LLC, a merger and acquisition consultancy based in New York City.

1st Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, USMC, is currently on active duty in the Marine Corps, where she served as a Female Engagement Team section leader. In that billet, she oversaw teams of women who served in direct support of infantry battalions.


So what do you think of the lawsuit? Do you think it’s a matter of recognizing the work women are already doing or should the policy remain in place? Tell us in the comments.

Photo Credit: Army Times


One response to “ACLU Sues Military to Lift Female Combat Exclusion”

  1. Dennis says:

    Then the tag needs to be update to suing the government. The above blog clearly states that the DOD instituted the policy. That’s a government agency and regulate the military. Another mud sling and inappropriate title directed at the same c

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