BRISTOW, Va. - Last year, Army Col. Ellen Haring thought she was finally getting her dream job. She was selected to supervise female soldiers who search and interview Afghan women in combat zones for special operations units.
Haring spent three months training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Then, just before she was to deploy to Afghanistan, she got a phone call from a staff officer. "Ma'am, we don't think you're qualified," she recalled him saying.
The job went to a lower-ranking male officer. Haring was outraged. "How could I not be qualified?" she said. "I'd already been thoroughly vetted just to get to Fort Bragg."
No one would give her a reason, she said. But she believed it was her lack of experience in combat, denied because she's a woman.
In May, Haring - West Point graduate, career officer, wife of an Army colonel, doctoral student - and another female Army Reserve soldier sued the military. The lawsuit says the Pentagon's exclusion of women from most combat positions is unconstitutional.
It alleges that the policy restricts women's earnings, promotions and retirement benefits. The suit asks that all assignment and training decisions be made without regard to gender.
Women make up 14.5 percent of 1.4 million active-duty personnel. Earlier this year, the Pentagon opened 14,000 jobs to women, including the positions of tank mechanic and artillery crew member. But the vast majority - 150,000 positions - remain closed.
The Pentagon says it is trying to overcome what it calls "physical challenges" to ending the exclusion policy. Among them: personal privacy, the cost of separate facilities for women and combat's physical demands.
"The department is 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," said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman.
On Sept. 13, the Pentagon filed a motion to dismiss the suit. It said the president and Congress "are entitled to substantial deference" in areas of military expertise.
Elizabeth Hillman, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said the suit was well-drafted, with strong plaintiffs. But it faces "a steep hill" because federal courts have been reluctant to challenge long-standing military policies, she said.
Haring contends that with no front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, women have essentially been serving in combat for years. More than 140 have been killed and 800 wounded.
Haring, 50, contacted the University of Virginia about its Molly Pitcher Project _ named after a woman said to have served in the Revolutionary War _ after learning it was seeking plaintiffs for the first suit challenging the ground combat exclusion. Ultimately, the project selected Haring and Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin of Florida, who contends she didn't get two positions as a result of the policy.
Haring and Baldwin are decorated, high-ranking soldiers who could demonstrate that they were denied promotions and opportunities, said Ann Coughlin, who directs the project.
Haring weighed the potential costs. "I know you just have to be brave enough to face the criticism, to challenge authority, to face down the stigma of being a social outcast," she said recently at her home in Bristow, Va.
Haring, a mother of three, served 13 years on active duty, including stints as an executive officer, brigade commander and instructor at a prestigious officer training school. Since 1992, she has served in the Army Reserve, reporting for regular duties while pursuing a doctorate in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University.
Throughout her 28-year career, the lawsuit alleges, "the career options available to Col. Haring, as compared to man who graduated in her (West Point) class, have been limited." The exclusion policy "institutionalizes the unequal treatment of women," said the suit, filed pro bono by a Washington law firm.
That discrimination culminated for Haring with the special operations job, she says.
"There was this open acknowledgment that they knew they were violating the combat exclusion policy," Haring said of her training at Fort Bragg. "It was decided, well, we're going to support this program and not worry about the exclusion policy."
In "a cruel and potentially deadly irony," the lawsuit says, women on the cultural teams were blocked from combat arms training designed to help protect them in battle. The lawsuit also says the military circumvents the exclusion policy with semantics by "assigning" women to combat units rather than "attaching" them.
Haring challenges a Pentagon contention that women are not able to carry a wounded 200-pound man off the battlefield. She said her husband and son, a weightlifter, both said that neither would be able to accomplish that feat.
"We're being held to standards that most men can't meet," she said.
Relaxing in her living room, Haring sighed when asked how long it might take the military to open all combat slots to women.
"I think eventually we'll remove all barriers," she said. "But it may be a long time coming if we don't put our foot down and demand it right now."