Department of Defense Lawsuit: Women Sue to Be On the Front Lines of Combat

CNN reports that four servicewomen who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have sued the Defense Department. The lawsuit challenges the Pentagon policy of banning women from ground combat. Women are increasingly placed in harm’s way due to modern warfare tactics are however barred from 238,000 positions in the military. Marine Corps Capt. Zoe Bedell told the Houston Chronicle that “The military is the last place where you are allowed to be discriminated against because of your gender.” The plaintiffs in the case say that not only does the policy bar women "from entire career fields,” but it also “unfairly blocks them from promotions and other advancements open to men in combat.”

The Defense Department had been slowly moving towards lifting combat restrictions on women. Recently, 14,500 combat positions have been opened up to women. Women are now allowed “to serve in existing roles such as medics, military police, helicopter pilots, and intelligence officers at the battalion level....” However, women are still banned from serving as infantry, armor, and special operations forces.

Opponents of the policy say that women are not being “recognized for their battleground experience, which could lead to promotions and higher pay.” Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, flew medivac missions in Afghanistan. She was shot down, engaged in combat, and was awarded a Purple Cross and a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. However, the “combat exclusion policy prevents her from seeking some combat leadership positions.” This prevents her from leveraging her experience in seeking more senior and higher paying positions.

Supporters of the policy, including some female troops, argue that women are not “physically capable of handling the rigors of being assigned to ground combat units.” Military leaders "want to make sure lifting gender-based barriers would not disrupt the cohesion of the smaller combat ground units and military operations,” according to the Air Force Times. In other words, they are not certain men could handle serving with women in close and dangerous combat missions. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum famously suggested that women in combat scenarios would put men in “compromising situations.” In an interview with NBC’s Today Show, Santorum said, “men have emotions when you see a woman in harm's way.”

But opponents of the policy have challenged the notion that women are not physically equipped to perform the tasks required to be qualified for ground combat. They wonder “why the Pentagon has been slow to adopt gender-neutral physical requirements.” They say that “maybe only a few women would qualify, but they should be allowed to try.”

The Marine Corps conducted a survey of 53,000 troops asking whether they believed women would be a distraction to male troops. The problem is that women make up only 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel. The results haven’t been released but the numbers may be somewhat skewed, as women were most likely underrepresented in the survey.

Women are already having a tough time in the military. In March, eight women sued the military for rape, assault and sexual harassment. In April, two women sued the Naval Academy and West Point for “systematically and repeatedly ignoring rampant sexual harassment.” Nineteen other plaintiffs, including five men, have sued the military for continuing to “foster a culture of sexual harassment.”

There are currently no less than three class-action lawsuits pending against the Defense Department for accusations in the cover-up and failure to prosecute cases of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. The incident of sexual abuse is so prevalent and so poorly managed by the Defense Department that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was forced to issue new procedures for processing and investigating the accusations.

The award-winning documentary The Invisible War states that “a female soldier in combat zones is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.” Is this a question on the survey? Is this one of the emotional issues Santorum was referring to in his statement?

The Service Women’s Action Network has joined the women in the lawsuit to remove the combat exclusion policy. Anu Bhagwati, a retired Marine captain and the executive director said, “It’s a bit of a slap in the face. We’re already doing this stuff.” Bhagwati, who is a black belt martial artist instructor in close-combat techniques, explained “Not all of us want to be in the infantry, but not all the guys do, either.”

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