SWAN Sues Department of Defense in Landmark Challenge to Combat Exclusion Policy
Date: November 27 2012
SAN FRANCISCO – A federal lawsuit (Hegar v. Panetta) was filed today on behalf of Service Women’s Action Network and four service women who are challenging The Defense Department’s longstanding policy barring women from serving in direct ground combat positions. The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.
The four individual plaintiffs currently serve in the Armed Forces. All have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, some deploying multiple times, where they experienced ground combat or led female troops who went on missions with infantrymen. Their career opportunities have been drastically limited by the policy, which does not afford them the same access to assignments, schools or training as their male counterparts.
"Combat exclusion is an archaic policy which does not reflect the realities of modern warfare, the values which our military espouses, or the actual capabilities of our service women," said Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of Service Women's Action Network and former Marine Corps captain. "Rather than enforcing a merit-based system, today's military bars all women regardless of their qualifications from access to prestigious and career-enhancing assignments, positions and schools, and is thus directly responsible for making service women second-class citizens."
Plaintiff Major Mary Hegar is a combat helicopter pilot who flew combat search and rescue missions in Afghanistan. In 2009, her helicopter was shot down while carrying three injured soldiers, and she and her crew were forced to engage in ground combat. Major Hegar, who returned fire after sustaining shrapnel wounds, was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, and was flying missions again within a week.
“Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, and I have proven that I can do the job,” said Major Hegar. “The ability to serve has very little to do with gender. It has everything to do with heart, character, ability, determination and dedication. This policy is a disservice to those women who put their lives on the line for their country.”
Women make up more than 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel and more than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Combat Exclusion Policy bars these women from serving in approximately 238,000 positions, many of which would prepare them for prestigious assignments later in their careers. This has created a significant talent drain and retention problem.
Other plaintiffs represented by the lawsuit include:
• Captain Zoe Bedell, who served with the Marines in Afghanistan as the officer in charge of an FET and lived with infantrymen for several weeks in the same sparse conditions and frequently encountered combat situations.
• Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt, who served with the Army in Afghanistan, where she went on missions in remote mountain areas with ground combat soldiers, and in Iraq, where her vehicle was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Staff Sergeant Hunt was awarded the Purple Heart for shrapnel injuries sustained in this attack.
• First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, deployed to Afghanistan where she led a FET that was regularly in danger of drawing enemy fire, being ambushed or hit by IEDs.
The full complaint can be found here: http://www.aclu.org/womens-rights/hegar-et-al-v-panetta-complaint.
More information on this case, including biographies of the plaintiffs, can be found at http://www.aclu.org/womens-rights/hegar-et-al-v-panetta-0.
SWAN Executive Director Anu Bhagwati’s statement is available at: servicewomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/AnustatementHegarvPanetta.pdf.
SWAN staff is available for appearance, comment and interview.
SWAN is a national nonpartisan civil rights organization founded and led by women veterans. SWAN’s mission is to transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and the freedom to serve in uniform without discrimination, harassment or assault; and to reform veterans’ services to ensure high quality health care and benefits for women veterans and their families. You can follow Service Women’s Action Network on Twitter at http://twitter.com/servicewomen, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/servicewomen.