More than 200,000 women have served in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 100 have died in Iraq alone. But frontline combat duty, with its risks and rewards, is not officially an option for American women serving in the military.
A group of University of Virginia School of Law students, a professor and a graduate are seeking litigants in an effort to win women the official right to serve in combat roles – and to qualify for the draft as well.
"Our goals are to gain official recognition for those women who have been placed in harm's way in the course of line of duty, and to expose a gender classification that is based on archaic stereotypes and is unconstitutional," second-year law student Kyle Mallinak said. "We don't just have to speculate about how women would perform in combat conditions. We know now that they've performed, and performed well."
Mallinak, who wrote an op-ed on the subject in April with law professor Anne Coughlin, has joined efforts with Coughlin and second-year law students Helen O'Beirne, Rebecca Cohn and Ariel Linet, who researched the issue as part of their coursework for the "Law and Public Service" course they took last spring.
"We studied this issue as an opportunity to further a cause," O'Beirne said.
Although none of the students has served in the military, they have sought out the opinions of many who have, and are interested in hearing from the public as they expand their efforts in the coming months. They also recently signed up a former U.S. Air Force major and F-16 fighter pilot, Tally Parham, as counsel for the effort. Parham, an attorney with the law firm Wyche in Columbia, S.C., has been a member of the South Carolina Air National Guard since 1996.
"I am honored to become a part of what I believe to be a very important effort to bring about long-overdue change," said Parham, a 1996 U.Va. law graduate. "I have no doubt about the caliber of the students working on this project, and it makes it that much more exciting."
The group has named themselves "The Molly Pitcher Project," after the myth – based on real accounts – of a woman in the Revolutionary War who took her husband's place in firing a cannon on British forces.
"Women have been involved in combat before this country officially came into existence," Mallinak said. "We're just trying to take the hidden contributions of women and expose them to the light of day."
Linet added, "We've come across a lot of women … who would like to rise beyond a certain level in the military and are de facto prevented from doing so, solely because of their gender."
The group believes it will not be difficult to find plaintiffs for a lawsuit, but they would also be satisfied if the Department of Defense institutes a policy change first. In January, a Pentagon commission on diversity recommended that the U.S. military end its ban on women in combat roles. In September, the Australian military announced that it would allow women to fight.
"When the Pentagon made a deliberate decision to put women in combat situations while maintaining this fiction that they are not in combat jobs, they crossed the Rubicon," Mallinak said. "There is no going back now. The only question is how long it takes for the Pentagon and the rest of America to realize that there is, in fact, no going back."
Some within the military have already acknowledged the blurring lines. According to one CNN report, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described women's changing wartime role in a speech in November, saying: "I know what the law says, and I know what it requires. But I'd be hard-pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today, or who served in Iraq over the last few years, did so without facing the [same] risks [as] their male counterparts.
"In a war where there is no longer a clear delineation between the front lines ... and the sidelines ... where the war can grab you anywhere, this will be the first generation of veterans where large segments of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat," Mullen said.
Parham has flown more than 100 combat hours in the F-16 over the course of three overseas deployments, including Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which she entered hostile airspace within the first 15 minutes of the war. Her squadron's mission was to suppress and destroy enemy air defenses.
"Women fighter pilots have been getting shot at for over a decade," Parham said. "A surface-to-air missile doesn't discriminate based on gender."
Parham entered service with the South Carolina Air National Guard in 1993, "almost immediately after learning of the repeal of the combat exclusion for military pilots," she said. She was able to defer training until after graduating from law school and was on active duty for four years.
Women are also excluded from the Selective Service System, which means that, unlike men, they don't have to register to be available in the event of a draft.
"These two forms of sex discrimination in the military are deeply connected," Coughlin said.
"Just as women should be entitled to participate in combat on the same basis as men, so they should be required to shoulder the burden of being drafted in the case of a national emergency. The draft shouldn't be a burden that's carried by men alone. It should be a burden that's shared with women."
But unlike the recent public drive to end the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" military policy, "There hasn't been a big push from non-military women" to expand the draft to include women, Linet said.
In 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a males-only draft system in Rostker v. Goldberg, based on the Department of Defense policy excluding women from combat.
"At the time they were dealing with a different type of warfare than we're dealing with today," Mallinak said. "In prior eras, there's been a clearly defined front line and then support services that really weren't in harm's way – that's where women were. Today, virtually anyone in a combat zone may find themselves actually involved in combat at some point."
Some military women serving in Afghanistan are part of FETs, or Female Engagement Teams, and work under low-level combat commanders to talk with local women in the countryside.
Coughlin said that not only are women serving, but the military is encouraging them to play a role in certain capacities that, but for the formal policy, would be recognized as combat.
"Female soldiers are needed to help gather intelligence in combat zones from Afghan women and men," she said. "They're put into these very dangerous theaters precisely because they're women, but then told that, because they are women, they can't receive the same recognition, honors, awards, promotions and opportunities as men."
After Coughlin and Mallinak published their op-ed, female veterans and organizations devoted to women's issues contacted the group. The Pitcher Project has reached out to key stakeholders as well.
The "Pitchers" will next work to lay the groundwork for litigation, which means finding a plaintiff or multiple plaintiffs, as well as counsel willing to help their volunteer effort pro bono. They are consulting with lawyers who work for small civil rights firms, as well as with lawyers from large private firms that devote significant hours to pro bono practice.
Coughlin said that the group hoped to bring one lawsuit with multiple plaintiffs, in order to educate the courts about the different ways in which the combat exclusion injures women and men in the military. The Pitchers said they would look forward to hearing and refuting the government's objections to allowing women to serve in combat roles.
She said explanations for the exclusion of women range from the idea that they don't have sufficient physical strength, to the notion that they will disrupt the psychological bonding in the unit, to the assertion that the men and women will form romantic and sexual attachments that will prevent them from engaging the enemy effectively.
"Each of these claims rests on stereotypes that are injurious to women because they fence us out of the very places where power is exercised," Coughlin said. "This is a classic case of special protections for women serving to confine them to subordinate roles. Our alleged pedestal is a cage."
The result, the Pitchers say, is that women are usually not among the key military leaders at the table when making a decision to go to war.
"We don't know whether or not women would bring different perspectives to bear on when it's wise to wage a war, but we certainly want their perspectives, whatever they are, to be part of the dialogue and debate," Coughlin said. "In philosophy, courage has been defined as the willingness to risk one's life in battle. That form of courage is said to be the most basic human virtue and attribute, and it's denied to women simply because they are women."