SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Pentagon "categorically" bars women from ground combat jobs, excluding them from more than 238,000 jobs, training and occupational specialties, four officers and the Service Women's Action Network claim in Federal Court.
The officers - Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, Capt. Alexandra Zoe Bedell, and First Lt. Colleen Farrell - sued Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
They claim the "combat exclusion policy" is unconstitutional, "harms servicewomen, including the plaintiffs, in significant ways," "is not justified by any important governmental objective," and is "based on outdated stereotypes of women and ignores realities of the modern military and battlefield conditions."
"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," the complaint states.
The policy, adopted by the Department of Defense in 1994, excludes women from most combat positions and bars them "from being assigned to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground," according to the complaint.
"As a result of this policy, women are barred from more than 238,000 positions across the Armed Forces, including all infantry positions, and from certain military occupational specialties and training schools. No United States statute requires this categorical exclusion of women. Instead, the DoD has itself decided to close these positions to servicewomen solely because they are women."
The officers add: "The combat exclusion policy sends a clear message to the world that women are not capable of serving their country to the same extent as men."
Yet 14.5 percent of active military personnel are women, and more than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the complaint. All were exposed to combat situations in modern warfare, which lacks clear boundaries or front lines.
"Of the women who have been deployed since Sept. 11, 2001, 85 percent reported serving in a combat zone or in an area where they drew imminent danger pay or hostile fire pay, and nearly half reported being involved in combat operations. Many of these women have served in combat with distinction. But they have been deprived of the training, opportunities, and recognition they deserve because, under the exclusion policy, they cannot 'officially' be assigned to ground combat units," the complaint states.
The unconstitutional policy makes it more difficult for women to move up to the top ranks, as combat experience is a factor in promotions. "For example, over 80 percent of general officers in the Army came from combat arms positions, from which women are excluded. Chances for promotion to senior enlisted positions are likewise enhanced for those who have served in combat arms positions and career specialists. The DoD's combat exclusion policy thus serves as a structural barrier to the advancement of women within the Armed Forces," the complaint states.
All four officers say they were exposed to combat overseas and have been held back from pursuing their interests in the military due to the exclusion policy.
Maj. Hegar was awarded a Purple Heart after being injured when her helicopter was shot down as she rescued injured soldiers.
Staff Sgt. Hunt's vehicle was hit by an explosive device during a tour in Iraq, for which she earned a Purple Heart.
They seek declaratory judgment that the combat exclusion policy violates the constitutional right to equal protection of law, and want the Pentagon enjoined from enforcing the policy.
Their lead counsel is Rosemarie Ring, with Monger, Tolles & Olson.