WASHINGTON – Air National Guard pilot Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar and her crew were flying three wounded soldiers to safety in Afghanistan in 2009 when Hegar’s helicopter was shot down. Hegar and the crew were surrounded by the enemy, and Hegar had been wounded.
Still, she said, she shielded the injured soldiers and returned fire, eventually getting the wounded out alive. She was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor and a Purple Heart.
“I believe I was born to serve my country in combat,” Hegar said Tuesday. But because of a 1994 policy barring women from direct ground combat roles, she isn’t allowed to compete for the jobs she wants.
Instead, Hegar is transitioning to the reserves – and, with three other veterans, suing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in an effort to remove the combat exclusion policy. The women involved say the policy stunts their careers, perpetuates a culture of harassment and harms recruitment and retention.
And, while critics question whether women can handle the austere living conditions and physical burden of the battlefield, the women say they have already proven they can hack it in combat.
Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, a civil affairs specialist, said she was frequently called on to accompany male combat arms soldiers on missions during her deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, she was injured in a roadside bomb explosion. But she still would love to be able to serve directly with a combat unit or attend combat leadership school, which she said would improve her chance for promotion.
Marines Capt. Zoe Bedell and 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell served with Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan, where the women live with male infantry Marines, wear the same gear, go on the same patrols and return fire when attacked.
“Women are serving in combat,” Bedell said, managing issues like privacy, hygiene and physical challenges.
More than 291,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 and 84 have been killed in hostile fire in those countries, according to the Department of Defense.
Earlier this year, the DOD announced that it would open more than 14,000 active-duty and reserve jobs that were off-limits to women. Panetta also directed the services to review jobs and assignments that could be opened to women.
A report on the evaluation of the newly opened positions and others that could be opened, efforts to pursue gender-neutral physical standards, and an assessment of remaining barriers is expected by the end of the year, said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
But those efforts are simply not enough, said Ariela Migdal, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project. The ACLU, the ACLU of Northern California and a California law firm are representing the women in the suit.
The lawsuit is silent on the issue of physical standards, which are based on gender and vary by service branch. But the Service Women’s Action Network, which is involved in the combat exclusion lawsuit, advocates for a single, gender-neutral physical standard.
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN and a former Marine officer, said the problem with different physical standards is that women are not even encouraged to compete on the same level as men. The combat exclusion policy, she said, tells military men that women are second-class citizens and cannot do the same jobs.
“Women are oftentimes not on the same playing field and reminded continuously that they can’t compete and that they should not compete,” Bhagwati said. “The culture condones sexism.”
Bedell said she is not looking for special treatment, just the chance to compete and to serve in what she said is the core mission of her service branch.
“We should all be able to choose how we pursue our careers,” she said. “The policy needs to go.”