SAN FRANCISCO — Four female service members filed a lawsuit Tuesday that challenges the Pentagon’s ban on women serving in combat, hoping the move will add pressure to drop the policy just as officials are gauging the effect that lifting the prohibition would have on morale.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, is the second one this year to take on the 1994 rule that bars women from being assigned to ground combat units, which are smaller and considered more dangerous since they are often in battle for longer periods.
The legal effort comes less than a year after the ban on gays serving openly was lifted and as officials are surveying Marines about whether women would be a distraction in ground combat units.
“I’m trying to get rid of the ban with a sharp poke,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who was among the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit. Hunt was injured in 2007 when her Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
Hunt and the other three women said the policy unfairly blocks them from promotions and other advancements open to men in combat. Three of the women are in the reserves. A fourth, Marine Corp Lt. Colleen Farrell, leaves active duty this week.
Women comprise 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. The lawsuit alleges that the combat policy means women are barred from 238,000 positions across the Armed Forces.
At a Washington, D.C., news conference, Pentagon press secretary George Little said the Defense Department was making strides in allowing more women into combat. He said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has opened about 14,500 combat positions to women.
“And he has directed the services to explore the possibility of opening additional roles for women in the military,” Little said. “His record is very strong on this issue.”
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ariela Migdal, who represents the four women, said Panetta’s actions weren’t enough. She called for an end to the combat ban.
“These tweaks and minor changes on the margins do a disservice to all the women who serve,” she said. “(The changes) fall short.”
Marine Corps Capt. Zoe Bedell said she left active duty, in large part, because of the combat exclusion policy. Bedell said she was frustrated that her advancement in the Marines was blocked by her inability to serve directly in combat units.
“The military is the last place where you are allowed to be discriminated against because of your gender,” she said.