By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — Two female soldiers are suing the Department of Defense and the Army to end policies prohibiting women from serving in a combat role.
Their complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that the military is violating the rights of servicewomen by excluding them from certain military positions and from ground combat units because of their gender. The suit was brought in the name of two women with the help of the Molly Pitcher Project, a group of University of Virginia law students led by professor Anne Coughlin.
“The ultimate objective of the Molly Pitcher Project is to open the profession of combat arms to women on an equal basis to men,” Coughlin said in a news release posted on the school’s website.
“We want to eliminate this last vestige of formal discrimination against women by the federal government, and ensure that women in the military have the same opportunities and the same obligations as men. No other employer in the country may tell a woman that she is barred from the job merely because she is a woman. It is time for the Pentagon to stop relying on sex as a proxy for fitness to serve.”
Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said the Pentagon does not discuss ongoing litigation, but he said in an email that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta “remains strongly committed to examining the expansion of roles for women in the U.S. military.” Breasseale went on to praise the contributions of women during the past decade of war.
Women “have proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles both on and off the battlefield, and these changes — the recent expansion of roles for women in the U.S. military — will allow them to accomplish even more. The Department remains committed to removing barriers that prevent service members from rising to their highest potential, based on each person’s ability and not constrained by gender-restrictive policies,” he wrote.
The Pentagon is also assessing any remaining barriers to the full implementation of a gender-neutral assignment policy and is expected to report to Panetta in November.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Haring and says that their career advancement has been hurt by the current policies. By being shut out of assigned combat roles, it says, women are unable to serve in some positions, suffer a loss of pay and benefits and eventually promotions.
Women can be “attached,” but not “assigned” to a combat unit, a distinction that the suit argues is more one of language than of level of danger. It notes that more than 800 women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 130 killed.
Haring has held positions as platoon leader, commander, executive officer and bridge commander during 28 years in the Army. She currently serves as a Joint Concept Officer for the Joint and Coalition Warfighting Center in Suffolk, Va. The lawsuit contends that Haring’s options were limited to support positions.
Baldwin has been in the Army for 20 years and has served as an administrative specialist, platoon sergeant and senior drill sergeant, among other posts. She has served abroad, including a posting in Baghdad in 2004.