ACLU Files Suit To Allow Women In Combat Positions

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit to eliminate remaining barriers to women in combat. The military has been opening more jobs to women, but they are still barred from being assigned to combat missions even though many continue to face fire in Afghanistan.

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These days, women who serve in the military also fight. That's been a reality on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. But women are still officially excluded from combat positions. Well, today, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Pentagon to challenge that. NPR's Larry Abramson explains.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Marine Corps Reserve Captain Zoe Bedell did two tours in Afghanistan while on active duty. Bedell led female engagement teams who were trying to establish ties with Afghan villagers, especially women. Bedell says her troops patrolled every day and lived in the same harsh conditions as male Marines.

CAPTAIN ZOE BEDELL: They wore the same gear and they carried the same weapons. And if the unit was attacked, my Marines fought back with the Marines. They returned fire. They looked for additional shooters - everything that the men did.

ABRAMSON: Despite all that, Bedell says she and her female colleagues did not get credit for their combat duty because they were not officially assigned to combat. That hurt their chances of promotion to leadership positions. Bedell says this inequity led her to leave active duty and to join the ACLU lawsuit filed today. It says that combat exclusion policy violates the constitutional guarantee that everyone will receive equal protection. Captain Bedell says the policy is also years behind the reality that women faced in Iraq and Afghanistan where it was impossible to maintain neat lines between combat zones and safer areas to the rear.

BEDELL: The combat exclusion policy does not recognize this reality. Instead, it creates a complex and dangerous set of rules, which prevent commanders from making the best choices when deciding how to fight.

ABRAMSON: This suit comes as the Pentagon says it's been rolling back policies that exclude women. Earlier this year, the military opened more than 14,000 new positions to female service members. And Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says there may be more to come. But ACLU attorney Ariela Migdal says there are still lots of jobs that are out of bounds.

ARIELA MIGDAL: There are 238,000 positions that remained closed to women, and that's after the recent incremental changes announced by the Department of Defense.

ABRAMSON: Migdal says combat experience is also key to getting into the leadership ranks. So combat exclusion helps explain why there are so few women in the top brass. The biggest question is whether female service members will win the right to fight, but then be excluded by physical fitness standards. This year, the Marines allowed two women into the demanding infantry officer course - both failed, though so do one in five of the men who try out. Kingsley Browne, who teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit, says physical differences do matter in battle.

KINGSLEY BROWNE: There are a lot of positions in the military that don't require great physical fitness, but ground combat's not one of them.

ABRAMSON: The ACLU suit does not challenge the need for physical standards, neither does another suit filed earlier this year on behalf of two Army officers. Professor Anne Coughlin of the University of Virginia is working on that suit. She says legitimate physical requirements are needed but...

ANNE COUGHLIN: Once those standards have been satisfied, that's it. Sex can't be used as an additional proxy to keep women out or, by the way, to force men in.

ABRAMSON: The Pentagon would not respond directly to this suit, but did say Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is waiting for feedback from the services to see whether more positions should be opened to women. The Pentagon said the goal is to ensure that the mission is met with the best qualified and most capable people regardless of gender. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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