A group of American servicewomen – including two who were awarded the prestigious Purple Heart after being wounded in battle – have revived the debate about the Pentagon's long-standing ban on women in combat by challenging the policy in court, labelling it an injustice to women who put their lives on the line.
All four have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case filed in a San Francisco court, they claim the ban overlooks the fluid nature of modern warfare that – despite the policy – often results in women serving in combat in America's theatres of war.
The ban, they say, continues to limit their prospects. "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," Air National Guard Major Mary Jennings Hegar, one of the plaintiffs, said.
As a result of the policy, women are barred from 280,000 positions across the American armed forces, according to the lawsuit, which names the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta as the defendant.
The action, filed with the American Civil Liberties Union, names Major Hegar and three colleagues – Captain Zoe Bedell of the US Marine Corps Reserves, First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell of the US Marine Corps and Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt of the US Army Reserves – among the plaintiffs. The non-profit Service Women's Action Network is also named as plaintiff in the suit filed on Tuesday.
Arguing that the ban is unconstitutional, Major Hegar and her fellow servicewomen say the policy does not just bar women from assignments to combat positions for which "they have already proven themselves suited", but denies them the recognition they deserve and need to rise up the ranks.
The case comes against the backdrop of a painfully slow process of reform as the Pentagon attempts to shed policies that hold women back.
Recent moves include clearing the way for women to serve in battalions alongside combat units.
"On [Leon Panetta's] watch some 14,500 positions have been made available to women," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Major Hegar's story, however, underscores the inequality that persists. She is barred from seeking some combat leadership posts solely because of gender, even though she flew helicopter missions as a search-and-rescue pilot in Afghanistan. On one occasion in 2009, her helicopter was shot down while rescuing three soldiers, and Major Hegar and her crew had to engage the enemy.
"The ability to serve in combat has very little to do with gender or any other generalisation. It has everything to do with heart, character, ability, determination and dedication," she said.