Women have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq for the past decade, serving in a slew of military roles on a murky battlefield that knows no formal frontlines. Now, four veterans who have served tours in both countries—including those who have won Purple Hearts for their efforts—are suing for recognition of that reality, and the end to the rules that officially bar them from combat.
“The combat exclusion policy is based on outdated stereotypes of women and ignores the realities of the modern military and battlefield conditions,” the four plaintiffs stated in a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. “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.”
Certainly the servicewomen’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan tell the story of a modern military fighting unconventional wars whose realities have long defied its formal policies. Maj. Mary Hegar flew Medevac missions to rescue wounded soldiers. Shot down in Afghanistan while trying to evacuate her fellow soldiers, she returned fire while bringing them to safety and won a Purple Heart. Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt’s reconstruction team in Iraq was hit by an IED. And Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell led a 46-member Female Engagement Team in Afghanistan that went out in the insurgent-heavy Helmand province to build relationships and gather intelligence their male colleagues could not.
The women say the ban on their participation in combat is not only unfair, but outdated. And they go further to argue that the rules excluding them from combat harm America’s safety.
“It is not only punishing women by not recognizing the service they are performing, but it is also hampering our ability to fight effectively,” says Bedell, a graduate of Princeton University now working in investment banking. “This is actively hindering our leadership’s ability to pick the best people for the jobs.”
Those veterans who have followed and fought for this issue for years agree.
“It is a national security issue,” says Lory Manning, a 25-year Navy veteran who now heads the Women in the Military Project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, in Washington, D.C. “Women have shown that they can shoot back, they can defend, they can pull an injured comrade off battle—we are limiting our ability to draw competent solders into the military.”
Today, women account for 14 percent of the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty military. According to the lawsuit, 238,000 jobs across the armed forces are off-limits for women.
No law prevents women from serving in active combat. Rather it is a 1994 memo written by then Defense Secretary Les Aspin that put in place the current policy. At the time, the Pentagon opened for the first time combat-support roles such as intelligence and maintenance to women, paving the way for the hundreds of thousands of women who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years.
Those pushing for the end of the combat exclusion policy had hoped Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would lift the ban in a long-awaited announcement this past February. What they got instead was a more incremental approach, one that opened fewer than 20,000 additional positions—or an extra roughly 1 percent of all military job—to servicewomen.
At the time, former soldiers like Shoshana Johnson, once a prisoner of war in Iraq, said it wasn’t enough. “I can tell you that I fought. I fired my weapon,” she wrote on The Daily Beast. "I got swarmed by the enemy, kicked in the head and gut, and taken prisoner. So did Jessica Lynch and Lori Ann Piestewa, two fellow female soldiers in my unit. Lori gave her life … That’s the front line.”
Manning agrees, saying the incremental approach was "ridiculous," and that the current lawsuit "is the response of the active-duty women to the minimal changes the Army and Marines have made.”
“Maybe it will light a fire under the Army or Marine Corps, because sooner or later it is going to happen.”
So now, as a decade of war moves to a close, women who have served for the past decade say they are not prepared to wait any longer for the inevitable change that already is occurring on the ground.
“Women are the last group that is subject to these blanket exclusions,” says Bedell, citing the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy affecting gays in the military. “It is a matter of time, but I am not willing to wait, because we have been at war for 10 years and it hasn’t changed. These things just don’t happen; they happen because the realities and the pressures catch up with the policies.”
For her part, Manning says that whether the lawsuit succeeds in overturning the ban or not, the servicewomen leading the legal charge are already having an impact.
“I don’t know whether they will be successful or not, but I think it does a lot of good even if they are not, because it raises the whole question,” says Manning, noting that the Australian military is now in the process of opening up ground combat to women. “Maybe it will light a fire under the Army or Marine Corps, because sooner or later it is going to happen.”
More than 130 women have died while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, another testament to the lack of clearly marked “combat” lines in today’s wars. While the combat ban says women cannot be permanently assigned to units whose primary mission is “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual … weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with hostile force’s personnel,” no rule prevents “attaching” women to those units. The Marines’ Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan, for example, are frequently attached to infantry units from which they officially are barred from serving. In Afghanistan, carefully selected all-female Cultural Support Teams support Special Forces and join them on missions, but women remain barred from serving in Special Forces units.
The women suing the Pentagon say the combat ban not only harms the armed forces, but prevents women from getting training and recognition for their work, and places them at a disadvantage for promotion.
“Because you have the policy that says women are inherently unequal by the organization’s standards and the country’s standards, that permeates the whole organization and makes it OK for people who want to treat you as a second-class citizen,” says Bedell. “It is the last place where it is acceptable to discriminate against a population. I feel a responsibility to the Marines that served under me and the ones that haven’t come yet to give them the opportunity to compete and to be evaluated on their merit rather than their gender.”