By Adam Cohen, Special to Time.com
(TIME) – When Major Mary Jennings Hegar was serving as a captain in Afghanistan her aircraft was shot down by enemy fire while she and her crew were evacuating injured soldiers. Though injured by a bullet that penetrated the helicopter, she completed the rescue mission while under fire on the ground — and received the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for “outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty.”
One thing Hegar, who has served three tours in Afghanistan, did not do: get credit for serving in combat. It is illegal for women to be in official combat positions — and to get the benefits that come with them. Hegar and three other service women filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco last week in a long overdue challenge to the Pentagon’s nonsensical and unconstitutional ban.
Women have always served in the military (and have lost their lives,) but Congress and the Pentagon have put an array of restrictions on them. In 1988, the military adopted the “risk rule,” which allowed women to be kept out of even non-combat positions if they were likely be put at risk of being fired on or captured. In 1994, it dropped the risk rule, but Defense Secretary Les Aspin adopted the current ban on women in official ground combat positions, after a poll had showed weak public support for allowing women to volunteer for combat.
Many military women — who are 14% of the 1.4 million active military — object to the policy because it blocks them from applying for some 238,000 jobs and excludes them from certain promotions. This is particularly unfair because the ban doesn’t actually protect women in service. Fully 85% of women who have served since Sept. 11, 2001 report having served in a combat zone or an area where they received combat or imminent danger pay, according to the lawsuit, and half reported being involved in combat operations. At least 860 female troops have been wounded and 144 killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.