Story highlights

Servicewomen who served in Iraq, Afghanistan say military discriminates against them

U.S. military has longstanding policy against women in ground combat

Women awarded Purple Stars and who were involved in firefights are battling the policy

CNN  — 

Four servicewomen who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan filed a suit against the Defense Department Tuesday challenging the military’s longstanding policy against women in ground combat.

Some of the plaintiffs led female troops who went on missions with combat infantrymen, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the women.

“Their careers and opportunities have been limited by a policy that does not grant them the same recognition for their service as their male counterparts,” the ACLU said. “The combat exclusion policy also makes it harder for them to do their jobs.”

Air National Guard search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar flew medevac missions in Afghanistan. While she was rescuing three injured soldiers, she and her crew were shot down and forced to engaged in combat, according to the ACLU.

Hegar suffered shrapnel wounds, and she was later awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, the ACLU said. She returned to flying status within a week. Despite that, the combat exclusion policy prevents her from seeking some combat leadership positions, the ACLU said.

An IED took a veteran’s leg, not her fighting spirit

Hegar said serving has very little to do with gender, and that the military’s policy is “an injustice to women who have come before us and who continue to put their lives on the line for their country.”

She wanted to be an Air Force pilot since she was a kid.

“I have proven my ability every step of the way,” Hegar said, according to a news release from the ACLU.

Two of the plaintiffs led Marine Corps “female engagement teams” in Afghanistan, according to the ACLU. They lived with and conducted missions with combat infantrymen. Another plaintiff was sent on similar missions in the Army, accompanying combat troops in Afghanistan, the ACLU said.

Those jobs were considered temporary duties outside of the servicewomen’s official specialties, so their combat experience is not given official recognition, the plaintiffs contend.

The Service Women’s Action Network, a national female veterans group, is also part of the suit, and the plaintiffs are being further represented by the ACLU of Northern California and a California-based law firm.

Women make up more than 14% of 1.4 million active military personnel, the ACLU said.

The military’s policy excludes women from more than 238,000 positions, according to the ACLU, arguing that that situation prevents commanders from mobilizing their troops effectively.

The ACLU and others who represent the woman said the policy denies training and recognition for service, puts women at a disadvantage for promotions or moving up in rank and prevents them from competing for jobs that they’ve shown they’re capable of.

Pentagon spokesman George Little took questions about the suit Tuesday, saying that he couldn’t comment about pending litigation, but he added that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “remains very committed” to examining role of women in the military.