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Does an ACLU Suit Mean Major Changes for Military Policy about Women in Combat?
By Harold Hutchison

During the War on Terror, women have stepped up heroically while in harm’s way. Indeed, the heroism of women like Leigh Ann Hester and Monica Lin Brown – both recipients of the Silver Star for heroism in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively – has been highlighted by the media.

This question of whether the military can assign women in combat roles has been forced and requires a solution. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit this past November against the Pentagon’s exclusion of women from direct ground combat units. These units have the mission of taking deliberate offensive action against the enemy. The suit, with four plaintiffs, including decorated search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Mary Jennings Hegar, a major in the Air National Guard, claims that the Pentagon’s policy of excluding women from direct ground combat is unconstitutional, that women see combat anyhow, due to the blurring of front lines, and that their careers have been hindered as a result of the ban.

Assigning women to units whose mission involves direct ground combat is a step beyond the current policy – which has been pushed to place women on submarines. So, why was the lawsuit filed? It is intended to apply pressure on the decision-makers and force them to revise current military policy.

The push for women in combat is not new – it has been pushed hard since 1992. There are changes afoot – recently, three female officers on board the ballistic missile submarines USS Maine and USS Wyoming received their “dolphins” – insignia symbolizing their qualification as submarine officers. The Marines recently opened the Infantry Officer Course to two women – both of whom dropped out of the course in the first month – one on the first day.

In February 2012, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a panel authorized by Congress, urged that the Pentagon try to use “diversity metrics” to enable civilian leaders to measure “progress” on the issue. In 2006, Admiral Mike Mullen, was calling diversity a “strategic imperative.”

Should diversity become a strategic imperative? What exactly is going on with this push for women to be assigned to direct ground combat? I decided to ask Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness for her take on these issues.

Ms. Donnelly founded the Center for Military Readiness in 1993, in the wake of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. For about a decade prior to that, she had been involved, first as a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services from 1984-1987, then as a member of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces in 1992. Donnelly was among the majority on the 1992 commission which adopted the statement, “If there is a conflict between equal opportunity and the needs of the military, the needs of the military must come first.”

After founding the Center for Military Readiness, she soon waded into the women in combat controversy in the wake of the death of Lt. Kara Hultgreen, a Navy F-14 pilot who was killed in a 1994 crash. After publishing a 1995 report on the issue, including pointing out apparent double standards in the training, Donnelly’s organization was sued for libel by Carrie Lohrenz, a Navy pilot who washed out of training in 1996. After six years of legal wrangling, a U.S. District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Center for Military Readiness, and dismissed the libel suit. In 2006, the case hit the Supreme Court, which upheld an appeals court ruling supporting the grant of summary judgment.

Since then, Donnelly has been active in trying to maintain policies that would keep the military capable of fighting and winning wars in a position that opposes changes in current policies regarding the gay and women in combat issues. In 2009, she assembled over 1,000 retired general officers to oppose the Obama Administration’s efforts to lift “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” While a lame-duck Democratic Congress did overturn the policy in 2010, Donnelly’s group still kept fighting to minimize the potential fallout from the policy change.

Donnelly told me that many times, when she asked potentially controversial questions of an officer providing a briefing, the officer would later come to her in private and tell her it was a good question and that it was on the mark. They wouldn’t discuss those questions in public due to a fear of being painted as anti-women by mainstream press outlets.

The ACLU suit comes after a decade of war which has seen far more women killed in action (136 as of 6 December, 2012) than were killed during the Vietnam War (16 total). Women are in harm’s way. So why the controversy, if women are already dying in combat?

Many of the women who served on Female Engagement Teams (FET) did so in violation of DOD policy prohibiting co-location of support units with units that engaged in direct ground combat. “I think the FETs were denied recognition for years,” Donnelly said, citing DOD’s violation of policy as a reason for not recognizing the heroic service of the FETs until the co-location rule was officially lifted in February 2012.

Donnelly believes that the ACLU suit is meant to try to short-circuit the normal legislative process to appease a vocal minority of women in the military. Among this vocal minority was Holly Graf, who in 1992 was a weapons officer on board USS Ainsworth, and who would be relieved as captain of USS Cowpens in 2010.

The fact is, the vast majority of the women surveyed have opposed the notion of being assigned to direct combat roles. In a 2001 survey, the Army Research Institute found that only 26% of enlisted women favored allowing women to volunteer for direct combat assignments. But the survey dropped that question starting in 2002.

Also of interest in the women in combat issue was a July 2012 article in the Marine Corps Gazette by Capt. Katie Petronio. Petronio’s article drew some significant controversy, as she cited significant medical issues stemming from two deployments – including infertility. Petronio, who was five months pregnant when she appeared on CNN to discuss the article, required expensive medical treatments to overcome the infertility.

This issue is quite thorny. On the one hand, women in harm’s way have performed with heroism – and some have made the ultimate sacrifice. But at the same time, there are real questions to be answered before the Pentagon’s exclusion of women from direct ground combat roles is changed. Congress should carefully scrutinize the Pentagon’s plans – especially to ensure that the standards are not lowered.

Article by Harold Hutchison