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Pushing the Pentagon to Do the Right Thing

Ariela Migdal,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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November 1, 2013

Yesterday, four servicewomen and the Service Women’s Action Network filed an updated complaint in their lawsuit against the Department of Defense for its ongoing policy and practice of banning women from thousands of jobs across the military, including entire military career fields that remain “men only.” The ACLU and the ACLU of Northern California, along with our partners at the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, filed this lawsuit challenging the Pentagon’s so-called “combat exclusion policy” almost a year ago. At that time, a 1994 directive signed by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin prohibited women from being assigned to most ground combat units and positions. We argued that this outdated policy didn’t match the reality of modern warfare, in which women have regularly gone into battle on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, unofficially or temporarily “attached” or “supporting” combat infantry units and Special Forces squads on their missions.

Last January, we had high hopes that the Pentagon was eliminating the archaic rules that tied commanders’ hands and prevented them from drawing from the best talent available when assembling ground combat teams. Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta went on television to announce the happy news that he was rescinding the 1994 ground combat directive.

Unfortunately, despite this celebrated announcement, the Department of Defense has continued its policy of excluding women from even applying for, much less serving in, tens of thousands – we believe about 200,000 – of combat positions, solely because of their gender. Inexplicably, the military continues to run all-male schools and training courses, including prestigious leadership schools like Ranger School, that women can’t even apply to.

These ongoing blanket bans have real effects on the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, and on other servicewomen. For example, Army Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt enlisted following the September 11th attacks, and has served our nation in combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, she accompanied male combat soldiers on missions in villages, searching for insurgents, often as the only woman on the team. Later, she deployed to Iraq, where her Humvee was hit by an IED, causing her injuries. Now, Staff Sergeant Hunt faces re-enlistment decisions. Astoundingly, though, despite being a Purple Heart recipient, and despite the fact that she is currently investing in her military career by going through additional intensive leadership training at Fort Knox, the military STILL won’t tell her whether she will be allowed – like male soldiers in her career field – to go through the Special Forces selection process and join a Special Forces unit.

This mind-boggling behavior by the military is resulting in a talent drain of battle-tested women officers and enlisted troops, at a time when we need to retain these very women who have combat experience and years of training. Another plaintiff, Marine Corps officer Zoe Bedell, supervised female Marines in Afghanistan as they “supported” (i.e., went on missions with, and lived in the same harsh battlefield conditions with) combat infantry and Special Forces units. Yet she left active duty for the Reserves, and is now attending Harvard Law School, in large part because the combat exclusion policy prevented – and continues to prevent – her from the full range of assignments. Even in the Reserves, many units, including those closest to where she lives, remain closed to women.

Perhaps the worst part is that there is no end in sight. Although the Pentagon has called for integration of women by 2016, it has left open the possibility that some career fields, units, and jobs, could remain closed to women indefinitely. It is troubling that, in plans outlining how it intends to integrate women, the military is resorting to old gender stereotypes and ignoring the experiences of women who have been serving in combat. For example, the plans say that the military intends to start studying the effect on “unit cohesion” and the “social science impacts” of introducing women into small combat and Special Forces teams. Yet, we have twelve years of data about the “social science” impacts of sending women like Staff Sergeant Hunt and Captain Bedell on difficult combat missions in active theatres of war. The plain facts are the military needs servicewomen in its ground combat teams – and there is no longer any excuse for pretending otherwise.

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