Women in Combat: Opening Up a Legal Front

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Marine photo by Corporal Ryan Rholes

Marine Corporal Taylor Mejia, an intelligence analyst deployed to Afghanistan, practices loading her weapon

It appears the lawyers are finally getting into the game. In November, a student team led by Professor Anne Coughlin of the University of Virginia Law School announced that they are going to challenge the combat exclusion policies of the military. Dubbed the Molly Pitcher Project, the objective is to “educate the public, the courts, whoever necessary that women have been engaged in protecting the homeland in combat roles for a very long time…” They apparently are looking for former or serving military women to join their cause to challenge the policy in the courts.

You may recall that in the 1970s, military women sued for the right to serve on Navy ships (Owens v. Brown), which eventually led to the amendment of Title 10, Section 6015, to allow women to serve on non-combatant ships and aircraft. It took another 15 years before this law was completely rescinded and women were allowed to serve in combatant ships (except submarines and patrol craft), and aircraft in 1993-94. The Army was never included as a party to the original combat exclusion provisions, because when the law was written into the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 there was no inkling that women would ever be needed, never mind want to serve, in ground combat units of the Army, Marine Corps, and Special Forces.

Well, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forever changed that paradigm.

Women are not only serving in roles that require offensive maneuvers as well as defensive combat, but they are now sought in special forces roles, as well as in teams that accompany combat troops during their raids of suspected terrorists. They are needed to segregate the women and children from the men as well as gain valuable intelligence information from the local women. Admiral Eric Olsen, the highest ranking Navy SEAL, recently noted that “there are a number of things that a man and a woman can do together that two guys can’t… A male and a female team would attract less attention than two males especially if they’re trying not to look like they’re there to break things and kill people.”

The issue, as I see it, is that for the first time, civilians are on the trailing edge of what is happening in the military. The policy may not yet be rescinded, but there is the very real possibility that after the dust dies down following the pullout in Iraq, military commanders will begin to focus on making policy reflect reality. Many advocacy groups are working on this. In 2005, the Alliance for National Defense rallied to suppress a move by then-Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.),  chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to seek broad legislative restrictions on how Army women were assigned and deployed. His proposed legislation was later expanded to restrict all military women, but failed to gain support outside of the armed services panel. While the restrictive legislation was unsuccessful, it served to resurrect the issue about how and where military women would serve. More recently, calls for rescinding of the policies are becoming louder and clearer.

Which brings us back to Professor Coughlin and the University of Virginia Law School students. I wish them well. I hope that they find the plaintiffs they need to pursue their lawsuit, and I hope that finally, women will be accepted as full members of the Armed Forces of the United States of America.

They are out there, they are fighting, they are being maimed, wounded, and killed like their brothers-in-arms, but they are denied the rights and benefits that accrue from serving in, and being recognized as, combat soldier, sailors, airmen and Marines. The time is now.