Col. Ricky Gibbs, commander, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Multi-National Division, Baghdad, places a Purple Heart on the collar of Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, a civil affairs specialist assigned to Company A, 450th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), 360th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne), for wounds suffered due to enemy contact during her deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hunt says the Pentagon policy that bars women from formal assignment to ground combat units made her feel especially vulnerable because she was not completely familiar with her unit. (Army)
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Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt has spent many months at the tip of the spear.
During deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan as a civil affairs expert, she routinely accompanied small infantry units on foot patrols, helping to conduct security searches of women, gather intelligence and organize local economic development projects.
Hunt was awarded a Purple Heart in 2007 after a roadside bomb in Baghdad blew through her up-armored Humvee and peppered her face and arms with shrapnel.
The Pentagon policy that bars women from formal assignment to ground combat units did not keep Hunt out of harm's way. Instead, she says, at times it made her feel especially vulnerable because she was not completely familiar with her unit.
"I was put with people I didn't know. I had never trained with them, and they had never trained with me," Hunt said in a recent interview. "If something kinetic happens and everyone goes in one direction and you go in another just because you've been training different … that is a problem for everyone."
Hunt is one of four women suing the Defense Department in a challenge to the longstanding policy that — in theory — prohibits women from serving alongside men in infantry units at the battalion level and below. The suit claims those rules are unconstitutional and violate women's right to equal protection.
Their lawyers argue that the rules create a glass ceiling and are stifling women's career opportunities inside the military.
Yet the women themselves, in a series of interviews with Military Times, also cite more immediate concerns about the real-world dangers faced by troops on the ground as they try to adhere to rules written by bureaucrats that are at odds with the reality of today's missions.
The Pentagon policy, last updated in 1994, defines "direct combat" as "engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew-served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with hostile personnel."
In 2011, a congressional task force recommended lifting the policy, saying it is outdated and does not reflect the nature of today's asymmetrical conflicts and the roles female troops play in those battles.
"Women are serving in combat," Hunt said. "The combat exclusion just forces commanders to engage in legal twisters to get the people on the ground they need to accomplish the mission."
The legal challenge is the second to target the combat exclusion policy. In May, two women in the Army Reserve filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The latest lawsuit, however, may pose more of a threat to the status quo. It's backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization with a long track record of courtroom victories with far-reaching impact. And it was filed in San Francisco, where the federal courts have historically been sympathetic to claims under the Fifth Amendment right to equal protection.
Elements of the lawsuit echo the original legal challenge leveled at "don't ask, don't tell," the law that prohibited gays from serving openly in the military. The law was first suspended in 2010 after a federal judge in California ruled it violated the Fifth Amendment.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the current lawsuit, although Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he is committed to expanding opportunities for women in the military.
New rules unveiled in early 2012 opened up 14,000 new jobs to women. But only about half of those were in the active-duty force, which amounts to less than 3 percent of the roughly 250,000 active-duty jobs previously off-limits to women under the combat exclusion rules.
Those new rules allow women to serve in battalion-level combat units in career fields that were already open to them, such as intelligence or medical jobs. But women will continue to be barred from most combat arms occupational specialties.
Critics of the policy say this limits women's opportunities for promotion into the senior ranks, which draw disproportionately from the combat arms. While women make up about 15 percent of the active-duty force, they account for only 7 percent of general and flag officers.
Working around the rules
Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell's career began with restrictions.
A Princeton graduate who studied Arabic and Dari, Bedell thought about becoming an intelligence officer until she learned that career field is closed to women.
One of the four troops named in the ACLU lawsuit, Bedell became a logistics officer in 2007. She later asked to join a Female Engagement Team — specialized units that Marine commanders designed to put women alongside infantrymen without technically violating the combat exclusion policy.
FET units underscore the Marine Corps' recognition that women can be extremely helpful in counterinsurgency missions. The women are trained to build rapport with local women, collect intelligence and gain access to social settings that are culturally off-limits to typical male Marines.
In 2010, Bedell deployed to Afghanistan as the officer-in-charge for the FET attached to I Marine Expeditionary Force.
She and about 45 female Marines on her team were scattered in groups of four or five across Helmand province. They carried M4 carbine rifles and 9mm pistols and patrolled on foot in places like Sangin district, a hub for the local opium trade where Taliban insurgents put up fierce resistance.
However, unlike male Marines, Bedell and her women had to pack up and return to the relative safety of Camp Leatherneck once every six weeks.
Marine commanders knew they were skirting the Pentagon's official restrictions, so in a nod to the rules against "co-locating" women with infantry units, commanders required women in the FETs to leave their forward operating bases every 45 days.
That meant riding in ground convoys across bomb-laden roads and filling seats on high-demand helicopter flights to get back to the Marines administrative headquarters for a "reset."
"It was massively disruptive to the mission," Bedell said. Travel to and from Camp Leatherneck was both time-consuming and dangerous. The women were often away from their forward operating bases for a week and undertook risky travel for no reason other than to satisfy bureaucratic guidelines.
"Anytime you are moving people around, there is risk. And if you are moving people around unnecessarily, there is unnecessary risk," Bedell said.
Once back at Leatherneck, Bedell tried to use the time well by gathering her Marines to share stories and successful tactics. But the women really had no particular mission other than to remain at the camp for a few days in order to adhere to their senior leaders' interpretation of the combat exclusion policy.
"There are benefits for people being able to shower, I guess," she said.
Meanwhile, battalion-size operations were delayed, said Marine 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell, who worked under Bedell on the 2010 deployment and is another plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit.
"There were times when battalion commanders had to reschedule major operations because our FET teams would be unable to participate due to this reset," Farrell said.
The ‘time of the month'
Air Force Maj. Mary Hegar was flying a medevac mission in Afghanistan July 2009 when enemy fire shot down her HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter
Grounded and suffering from shrapnel wounds in her arm and leg, Hegar relied on her training from the Air Force's "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape" training until another aircraft came to her rescue about 20 minutes later.
Despite her years of experience working with ground troops, the Air Force rejected her request to become a special tactics officer, which involves ground-level operations providing detailed targeting information to pilots. Those jobs are off-limits to women under the current combat exclusion policy.
The Texas native, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, said the limitations on women's careers reinforce a not-so-subtle gender bias she has seen occasionally during her 12 years in uniform.
"I had a senior field-grade officer not jokingly tell me that the first time ‘my time of the month' got in the way of my job, he was going to move me," Hegar said.
She also recalled a flight instructor who refused to give her a passing grade and when asked why, responded: "I just don't think women can do this."
Hegar said she believes that the combat exclusion policy is partly to blame for those incidents.
"Those are the things that those types of policies perpetuate in our culture," she said.
‘We are not created equal'
The prospect of women in combat has been controversial even among female troops.
In the July issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, Marine Capt. Katie Petronio, 28, wrote a controversial article titled, "Get Over It: We are not all created equal."
In recounting her physically debilitating experience working alongside Marine infantrymen, Petronio said she suffered a spinal injury, muscle atrophy and became infertile as a result of her seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. She suggested allowing women into the combat arms career fields would result in health problems and lower unit performance.
"Despite my accomplishments, there is no way I could endure the physical demands of the infantrymen whom I worked beside as their combat load and constant deployment cycle would leave me facing medical separation long before the option of retirement," she wrote.
"Should the Marine Corps attempt to fully integrate women into the infantry, we as an institution are going to experience a colossal increase in crippling and career-ending medical conditions for females."
Many Marines lauded Petronio for articulating views that most men are uncomfortable stating publicly. But Farrell said it's unfair for Petronio to generalize about all women.
"Just because this one woman could not hack it, that doesn't mean all women can't hack it," Farrell said. "No, not every woman will be able to survive in the infantry — and not all men will either. Each service member should be evaluated on their own individual merits."