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On This 4th of July: Liberty and Justice For All!

Hannah Brudney,
Women's Rights Project,
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July 4, 2013

Correction: Independence Day commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from Great Britain.

July 4th marks our country’s victory in its war of independence from Great Britain and therefore serves as an especially appropriate day to commemorate and reflect upon the role and importance of the armed services in our world today.

In early June, Susan Herman, the president of the ACLU, gave a speech to the U.S. Army War College in which she discussed the ACLU’s work on a broad range of important military issues, including two on which the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project works: the exclusion of women from combat and sexual assault in the military.

Although more than 150 servicewomen have died and more than 800 have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, until recently, the Department of Defense’s “combat exclusion policy” excluded women from well over 200,000 combat positions and prevented them from competing for certain career fields and promotions. After her speech to the War College, Herman confirmed that servicewomen indeed “felt their careers had been constrained by the exclusions.”

In November 2012, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of four servicewomen and the Service Women’s Action Network challenging the DOD’s discriminatory combat exclusion policy. The four women have all completed tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan and faced exclusion and discrimination as a result of the combat exclusion policy. In January 2013, the ACLU, U.S. servicewomen, and the country as a whole won a great victory when the DOD lifted the combat exclusion policy. There is still a long way to go in ensuring that servicewomen are able to compete for all positions within the military, however, and as Herman noted, “the real question will be how [the change in policy is] implemented.”

Combat exclusion is not the only barrier to a fully inclusive and egalitarian armed forces. Unfortunately, sexual assault within the ranks continues to take place with impunity. Thousands of service members every year experience some form of rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment, perpetrated by fellow service members. In addition, service members who suffer depression or PTSD as a result of sexual assault find that the Department of Veterans Affairs treats their claims differently from the claims of service members whose depression or PTSD results from other causes. And, because of the Supreme Court rulings, service members are not permitted to seek redress in court for damages they have suffered as a result of sexual assaults. The ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office is currently advocating for and supports legislation to ensure fair treatment of military victims of sexual assault.

The Department of Defense and Congress have taken some steps to address the issue of sexual assault and remedial justice, but a great deal more still needs to be done. Even the officers attending Herman’s lecture at the Army War College admitted that there is a “need for better training to teach new recruits that such behavior will not be tolerated.” These officers agreed with Herman that, “men and women who serve their country have a right not to be dishonored and a right to justice if they are.”

They also agreed that teaching soldiers not to marginalize or disrespect women colleagues is as much of a challenge as fighting the inbred cultural norms that led to the verbal and physical hostility towards African-American soldiers after integration of the armed forces in 1948, and to gay and lesbian soldiers in the post-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era.

In 2009, Herman wrote a blog after her first speech to the U.S. Army War College in which she described the complex relationship between the ACLU and the military. She noted that despite public perception, the “caricature of the ACLU as anti-military is as inapt as the caricature of the ACLU as anti-religion,” and that the “caricature of the military as anti-ACLU is equally false.” Four years later, the same holds true and we must assure “those in the military who do not see themselves as our allies that our interests and values really do coincide.” This alliance furthers WRP’s efforts to seek redress for the sex discrimination that leads to and is reinforced by the combat exclusion policy and deficient systems for dealing with sexual assault. Along with concerned military leaders, the ACLU will continue to work towards gaining improvement and reaching solutions in both of these areas. The brave men and women who defend our values deserve a share of our liberty and justice for all.

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