What's at stake in women soldiers' right to serve in combat

American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project senior staff attorney Ariela Migdal speaks with several active female military personnel who have filed a federal lawsuit demanding combat action. American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project senior staff attorney Ariela Migdal speaks with several active female military personnel who have filed a federal lawsuit demanding combat action. Ben Margot/AP

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, four female service members sued the Defense Department on Tuesday for the right to fight in combat units, just like their male counterparts. Since 1994, there's been a ban on women being assigned to combat units, and this is the second case this year seeking to overturn it.

The women and the ACLU say that bombs and bullets know no gender, and keeping women off the front lines makes little sense in wars like Afghanistan, where front lines hardly exist. "It's harming women in the field now," ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Gill told US News. "Our clients in this case have served in capacities where they're shot at by enemy fire, they're engaged, they're attached to combat units. They're fighting in exactly the same circumstances as men but they're not recognized for that work."

She has a point. Women make up 14 percent of the military's 1.4 million active personnel, and they fight and die just like their male counterparts. They're also barred from nearly a quarter of a million positions within the military because they're not allowed to take combat arms positions. Things get even more difficult for women, when it comes to officer posts. About 80 percent of general officers aree promoted from combat units like infantry, artillery and special operations commandos, meaning that women have little chance to climb the ranks. "Why would we want to stop our military from selecting the top people for jobs?" asked Zoe Bedell, a retired Marine Corps captain and one of the plaintiffs in the case. "We are asking for the chance to compete for the same jobs as men. This benefits our military by having people in positions not because of an irrelevant factor like gender, but because of their demonstrated abilities."

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