Women in Combat: Policy Finally Meets Reality

Until today, official United States policy banned all women from being assigned to ground combat units. The policy was military-wide and covered an entire gender – no exceptions for women who were fast, strong, excellent marksmen, good at keeping calm under fire, or able to take and give directions in a high-octane situation. It was one of the last remaining relics of official government exclusion of women.

“We are thrilled to hear Secretary Panetta’s announcement today recognizing that qualified women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their brothers-in-arms, which they actually already have been doing with valor and distinction,” said Ariela Migdal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “But we welcome this statement with cautious optimism, as we hope that it will be implemented fairly and quickly so that servicewomen can receive the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts.”

Eliminating the combat exclusion policy is a huge step forward for our country and for our military. No longer will commanders be limited to a talent pool that excludes thousands of ready, willing, and more-than-able soldiers. No longer will an outdated policy interrupt operations and dictate who can do which job in the thick of the fight. No longer will women volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way, only to be told that entire career fields and more than 238,000 positions are off-limits to them. We can finally get rid of the brass ceiling that keeps the top military leadership overwhelmingly male.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP are representing four servicewomen and the Service Women’s Action Network in challenging the Defense Department’s longstanding policy barring women from thousands of ground combat positions, known as the “combat exclusion policy.”

Women make up more than 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel, yet the rule categorically excludes them from those more than 200,000 positions, as well as from entire career fields. Consequently, commanders are stymied in their ability to mobilize their troops effectively. In addition, servicewomen are:

  • denied training and recognition for their service
  • put at a disadvantage for promotions
  • prevented from competing for positions for which they have demonstrated their suitability and from advancing in rank.

Among the many problems with this policy was the fact that it bore little relationship to the reality of modern warfare. The people who shot down Major MJ Hegar’s combat helicopter during a rescue mission and engaged her crew with heavy ground fire in Afghanistan apparently had not read the policy. The military leaders who sent Marine Corps Captain Zoe Bedell and First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell to Afghanistan to command teams of women who would live, work, and fight with ground infantry troops in tiny combat outposts must have known about the policy, but got around it by assigning the women into so-called “Female Engagement Teams,” instead of to the infantry units themselves. And the commanders who plucked Army Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt from her regular job in Civil Affairs and put her in helicopters over the Afghan mountains, to be dropped off with platoons of ground soldiers going on door-kicking missions, seem to have disregarded the policy altogether because they had missions to accomplish.

Today, the Pentagon will finally get rid of the antiquated combat exclusion policy. This is a historic moment that came about because women like the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the policy had the guts to do double duty for our country. First, they gave their blood, sweat, and tears in the military, slogging through the mountains and the deserts and, in the cases of Major Hegar and Staff Sergeant Hunt, sustaining combat injuries. Then, when they came home to find that official policy insisted that their combat service did not even exist, they performed a second service, by coming forward to tell the nation what they and other women have been doing on the battlefield, and to insist that the policy be changed.

We, along with our four clients, our client the Service Women’s Action Network, and thousands of servicewomen and veterans, will be keeping a close eye on the armed services as they implement this change. Now is not the time for foot-dragging or more games about which jobs women are officially permitted to do. For more than a decade, women have been risking and, in more than a hundred instances, giving up their lives in combat. It’s long past time for the policy to catch up.

The four servicemembers have all done tours in Iraq or Afghanistan – some deploying multiple times – where they served in combat or led female troops who went on missions with combat infantrymen. Their careers and opportunities have been limited by a policy that does not grant them the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts. The combat exclusion policy also makes it harder for them to do their jobs.

See the full profiles of the plaintiffs.

Two of the plaintiffs were awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded in the course of their deployments.  Two led Marine Corps Female Engagement Teams, in which women Marines lived with and went on missions with Marine Infantrymen in active combat zones.  Two were awarded medals in recognition of their performance while in active engagement in combat zones.  One earned a Distinguished Flying Cross with a Valor Device for extraordinary achievement and heroism while engaging in direct ground fire with the enemy, after being wounded when her helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan.

By Ariela Migdal, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties fights for equal protection under the law for all.