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Women press to end combat ban

Four in military say restriction is limiting careers

Four female members of the armed services have filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department, saying its "outdated" ban on women serving in combat is unconstitutional and hurts their military careers.

Each of the four women, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has served at least one tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Two are Marines — Capt. Zoe Bedell, 27, and 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell, 26; the others are Purple Heart recipients — Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, 28, and Air Force Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, 36.

The women's lawsuit comes as the Pentagon is considering opening more positions to female service members.

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta opened to women 14,000 jobs that had been male-only assignments. He ordered each of the services to look into other jobs that could be opened and report back to him before the end of this month.

Pentagon press secretary George Little declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the recent openings "are merely the beginning and not the end of a process, and we expect that process to continue."

Advocates for placing women in combat roles say they have proved themselves in ground combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Critics say women on average are not physically built for ground combat, and placing them in combat would hurt cohesion in an all-male units.

"All of the men I've ever served with have a protector instinct, and I can assure you that that instinct would be immediately directed to the woman on the team," retired Army Col. Jeff Struecker, a former Ranger, said in an interview earlier this year. "If something happened to her, it would devastate the men on the team in ways that wouldn't devastate them if it was their best friend and it was a guy."

One of the plaintiffs, Maj. Hegar, a helicopter pilot, said she experienced no acts of chivalry when her plane was shot down on a search-and-rescue mission with special forces in 2009.

Her seven-person crew was on a mission to rescue three injured U.S. troops who were hit with a roadside bomb. As their helicopter landed next to the convoy, they were ambushed.

"This whole thing was set up as a trap for medevac helicopters," Maj. Hegar said.

Her crew brought the wounded on board, but as they lifted off, they realized they wouldn't make it back to the base and decided to land.

The crew secured a perimeter around the aircraft. Maj. Hegar, realizing the wounded had no body armor, shielded them with her own body. A small reconnaissance aircraft later extracted them from the landing site.

"They absolutely did not treat me like I was a weaker person who was to be protected," Maj. Hegar said of her crew. "There was no excessive chivalry or trying to take care of me."

Maj. Hegar was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with a Valor Device, two of the highest decorations for a pilot.

Maj. Hegar said her lawsuit is not intended to dictate to the services how they should operate but encourage the Defense Department to lift restrictions on military commanders who have "found themselves in the difficult position of needing to use highly talented and qualified women in combat and not being able to."

ACLU senior staff lawyer Ariela Migdal said Capt. Bedell went on missions with infantrymen and regularly encountered combat in Afghanistan.

But since her team was designated as "temporary," Capt. Bedell and other female Marines had to return to the main forward operating base every 45 days, which took them away from missions for up to a week.

The lawsuit cites discrimination in the combat-exclusion policy, noting that women do not receive official recognition for having served in combat because they can only be "attached," not "assigned," to combat units.

"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," the lawsuit states.

The ACLU's Ms. Migdal said Tuesday that "servicewomen who have been spending the last 10 years trying to accomplish missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming back and seeing there really is a brass ceiling."

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