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Military women sue over 'combat exclusion' rule

A group of female pilots, Marines and soldiers gathered in San Francisco on Tuesday to announce the filing of a lawsuit challenging the military's policy of excluding women from many combat positions.

The four women plaintiffs, along with the Service Women's Action Network headquartered in New York, are suing the Department of Defense, and the suit names Defense Secretary Leon Panetta specifically. A representative at the DOD in Washington, D.C., was not immediately available for comment, but he did say it is common policy not to comment on ongoing litigation. 

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Marine 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell, Marine Reserves Capt. Zoe Bedell, Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt and Air Guard Major Mary Jennings Hegar in the suit, which was filed Tuesday afternoon in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The four women have all served in Afghanistan or Iraq, and two are Purple Heart recipients.

Their careers and opportunities have been limited by a policy, the suit states, which 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, the suit alleges.

Though the Pentagon is reforming the policies directed at servicewomen, the rules still bar women in the U.S. military from specific combat positions -- positions that are available to men. 

"To this day, that same part of me doesn’t understand why someone’s gender would have any bearing at all on what job they ended up in," wrote Major Mary Jennings Hegar, who is based at Moffett Field -- about 40 miles south of San Francisco --  and is a member of the U.S. Air National Guard. "I always thought that your skills, strengths, and interests would be better qualifiers. I remember watching the news when I was in high school and hearing that they were opening combat aircraft up to women for the first time. My first thought was, “Cool! What do I need to do to get one!” followed closely by my second thought, “What changed? Why weren’t we allowed to fly in combat before?” 

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Hegar has served three tours over two deployments to Afghanistan, and trained as a search and rescue pilot after serving five years in the Air Force. She was also awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with a Valor Device for heroism while participating in an aerial mission near Kandahar Airfield in 2009. 

According to the suit, women make up more than 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel, yet the rule categorically excludes them from more than 200,000 positions, as well as from entire career fields. Consequently, the suit states, 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.

"That’s the problem with the military’s combat exclusion policy," Hegar wrote." It makes it that much harder for people to see someone’s abilities, and instead reinforces stereotypes about gender. The policy creates the pervasive way of thinking in military and civilian populations that women can’t serve in combat roles, even in the face of the reality that servicewomen in all branches of the military are already fighting for their country alongside their male counterparts. They shoot, they return fire, they drag wounded comrades to safety and they engage with the enemy, and they have been doing this for years. They risk their lives for their country, and the combat exclusion policy  does them a great disservice."

NBC Bay Area's Cheryl Hurd contributed to this report.

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