RICHMOND - Two female Army Reserve officers have sued the Department of Defense and the Army to try to reverse military policies banning women from combat roles.
The lawsuit filed in US District Court for the District of Columbia accuses the government of violating the constitutional rights of servicewomen by excluding them from certain ground combat units and other positions solely on the basis of gender. It seeks to end such policies by the Defense Department and Army and to require the military to make all assignments and training decisions without regard to gender.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, names Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Deputy Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, and Assistant Army Secretary Thomas Lamont. It is the first lawsuit to challenge the combat ban, according to University of Virginia Law School professor Anne Coughlin, who led an effort to look into the policies.
Department of Defense spokesman Todd Breasseale declined to comment specifically Friday about the lawsuit. But he said Panetta “remains strongly committed to examining the expansion of roles of women in the US military, as evidenced by the recent step of opening up thousands more assignments to women.’’
Under that change, female officers and noncommissioned officers will be assigned to combat units below the brigade level. The change will open up about 14,000 new jobs for women in the military, but there are still more than 250,000 jobs that remain closed to women.
The new jobs within combat battalions are in personnel, intelligence, logistics, signal corps, medical, and chaplaincy. The Army is also opening jobs that were once entirely closed to women, such as mechanics for tanks and artillery and rocket launcher crew members.
“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,’’ Breasseale said.
In their lawsuit, Command Sergeant Major Jane Baldwin and Colonel Ellen Haring allege that the policies banning women have hindered their career advancement and that continued enforcement of the policy unconstitutionally bars women from certain positions available to men, restricts current and future earnings, their opportunities for advancement, and their future retirement benefits.
The lawsuit also notes that women are already serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead of assigning them to combat units, the military is purposefully and deliberately circumventing the exclusion by “attaching’’ them to such units.
In doing so, however, the policies put the women in more danger than their male counterparts because they are barred from receiving combat-arms training necessary for engaging with hostile forces.
Haring has held positions as platoon leader, commander, executive officer, and bridge commander over a 28-year Army career. She currently serves as a joint concept officer for the Joint and Coalition Warfighting Center in Suffolk. The lawsuit argues that Haring’s options “were limited to support positions with no possibility to compete within the combat arms.’’
The ban also has caused Baldwin and Haring to “suffer invidious discriminatory treatment in a work environment that institutionalizes the unequal treatment of women solely because of their sex and notwithstanding their individual abilities,’’ the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit stems from an initiative by Coughlin, a law professor specializing in gender discrimination, and several University of Virginia law students. The Molly Pitcher Project, named after a woman who was on the front lines of the Revolutionary War, examined whether excluding women from combat roles could be challenged in court, whether they harmed women, and whether those women wanted to seek legal action.
“In every place in the US, employers are forbidden to rely on sex as proxy for fitness for the job, but in the military, sex is a proxy for fitness for combat,’’ Coughlin said Friday. “With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what we’re seeing is women working in combat theaters, fighting and dying for their country. The practical question is: How can we continue to justify formal discrimination?’’