For years, female soldiers have fought and died beside male troops–150 of them have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They patrol in remote outposts and engage the enemy, but their roles as combatants are unofficial, meaning they don’t get credit. However, it is primarily through acknowledged combat roles that promotions are achieved.
The disparity between military policy and the reality on the ground led four military women and the ACLU to file suit against the Department of Defense (DOD) in federal court on Tuesday. All of the servicewomen have served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Two earned Purple Hearts due to wounds they sustained. Nevertheless, their careers could stalemate, or even end, due to the “brass ceiling” that has led many other women to leave military service.
A policy adopted in 1994 formally banned women from combat, although in practice the ban has been going on since the founding of the nation. The suit reads:
“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 Department of Defense has made some progress under Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta has opened about 14,500 jobs that were previously closed to women and has ordered the armed services to explore options for opening more. However, 238,000 jobs remain off limits. The Air Force has the best record, with 99% of its positions having no gender restrictions, but the Army and the Marine Corps lag far behind.
This fall, the Marine Corps actually let women attend their Infantry Officer Course for the first time–but forbid them to lead infantry units when they were done. Without those leadership positions within combat units, women cannot achieve the highest pinnacles of their careers. Plaintiff Captain Zoe Bedell of the Marine Corps said:
“We can’t have a policy that says I’m not allowed to compete.”
In a policy paper, the Alliance For National Defense criticized the Army and Marine Corps for how their policies are determined, stating:
“Performance standards for military jobs should be based on the scientifically developed and empirically verified elements of the job’s tasks and not based on personal opinion.”
According to the Alliance, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs recently told an audience that while only two women have ever become 4-star generals, many more are on the way. “How?” the Alliance asks, when there is no integrated thought or joint planning.
That is precisely what the lawsuit is intended to provide for all women in the armed services–a well-defined path to the upper echelons of leadership.