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SF Lawsuit Demands Combat Roles for Women

| November 27, 2012
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They get shot at. They get bombed. The risk death for their country. Now some military women are fighting for the right to official combat positions.

Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt is one of four women suing to allow combat roles for U.S. military women. (Aarti Shahani/KQED)

On Tuesday, four women represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in San Francisco challenging a 1994 ban on women in combat roles. The women argue that keeping them out of the high-prestige combat jobs stunts their careers.

“Your infantrymen, your artillerymen — those are the people that are the cool kids of the lunchroom, so to speak,” said plaintiff Jennifer Hunt. Hunt received a Purple Heart for service in Iraq, where shrapnel tore through her face and arms while she was driving a military jeep. Hunt says the policy blocks her from climbing up the ranks, even when she’s equally qualified.

“So if I were to go up on a board against another civil affairs staff sergeant, and he was a male and he had come from the combat arms community, he would still get looked at more favorably for having that combat arms experience. I would have absolutely no chance to make up that cultural bonus that he gets from having that position open to him.”

The four plaintiffs said they have fought alongside male colleagues, but can’t get access to the career tracks to which these experiences entitle men. For example Major Jennings Hegar, stationed in Mountain View by the California Air National Guard, was shot down when her helicopter was flying a rescue mission in Afghanistan in July 2009. Wounded by an enemy bullet, Hegar returned fire and completed her mission.

Despite recognition she received for this success, Hegar is quitting the Air National Guard because of the rule barring her from positions she wants.

The suit coincides with a Pentagon review of the policy. In May, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta began allowing exceptions to the ban on combat for women with the goal of studying how women perform in these roles. The change opened up 14,500 positions to women,said Pentagon spokesperson Eileen Lainez in an email.

“The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women,” said Pentagon spokesperson Eileen Lainez in an email. “Our goal is to ensure that the mission is met with the best qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the changes are coming too slowly.

More than 144 female troops have been killed and more than 860 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began, according to Pentagon statistics reported by the Associated Press. Roughly 20,000 of the 205,000 service members currently serving in Afghanistan are women.

The lawsuit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, the AP reported.

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