Women Sue Pentagon Over Combat Exclusion

A colonel in the Army Reserve assigned to a Suffolk unit has sued the federal government in hopes of overturning the military's ban on women in combat.

Attorneys for Col. Ellen Haring and Command Sgt. Major Jane Baldwin filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the legality of Pentagon and Army policies that exclude women from certain ground combat units because of their sex.

Haring, who lives in Bristow, Va., is a 1984 graduate of West Point with 28 years of experience. She serves on the staff of the Joint Coalition and Warfighting Center in Suffolk.

Baldwin, who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., joined the Army Reserve in 1987. She has served in South Korea, Germany and Iraq, and is currently assigned to a unit at Fort Bliss, Texas.

The women are represented, pro bono, by attorneys from a Washington, D.C., firm, Covington & Burling.

The suit, filed in Washington, D.C., was inspired by a group of students at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville who formed a group called the Molly Pitcher Project. It aimed to explore whether combat exclusion policies could be challenged in court and whether women in the military were interested in challenging the ban.

The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that policies excluding women from combat jobs are illegal because they violate the Fifth Amendment's equal protection clause. It also wants the military to make all assignment and training decisions without regard to sex.

Haring and Baldwin contend that their careers have been hurt because they are unable to apply for specific positions for which they were otherwise suited.

"Despite her other qualifications and her association with the Special Operations community, Col. Haring's lack of Special Forces branch qualification -- a direct result of the combat exclusion policies -- impacted her ability to obtain" a non-combat support position in Special Operations Command," the suit alleged. It said Haring was overlooked for the job, which was given a lower-ranking man who was Special Forces qualified.

The lawsuit comes just weeks after the Army and Marine Corps opened up additional positions to women, allowing them to work in headquarters jobs of some units that engage in direct ground combat. And it follows years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the military has circumvented its own rules by allowing women to be "attached" to some combat units instead of assigned, and by allowing women on cultural support teams to provide direct support to combat units.

"These actions establish that the officials themselves know that the policies are irrational and arbitrary," the lawsuit said.

Named as defendants are Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, John McHugh, secretary of the Army, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army's deputy chief of staff, and Thomas Lamont, the assistant secretary in charge of manpower and reserve affairs. To see the complaint: http://www.law.virginia.edu/pdf/combat_exclusion_policy_complaint.pdf

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