Joining them as a plaintiff is the Service Women's Action Network, a New York-based advocacy group.

"The military is the last place with legalized sex discrimination in the United States," said former Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the network. "It fosters a broader atmosphere of sexism toward women. You can't expect women to be treated well with a discriminatory policy."

Hunt joined the Army Reserve after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She earned a Purple Heart in September 2007, when the Humvee in which her civil affairs team was traveling through Baghdad rolled over a roadside bomb. Shrapnel hit her face and upper body, and she suffered an electrical burn on her back.

But she felt particularly exposed in Afghanistan, where she and other women — some of them cooks and payroll personnel — were assigned to join infantry soldiers in house-to-house searches. All soldiers get basic training, she said, but not the "higher-level soldiering skills that combat arms units focus on in their everyday life."

"There's a disconnect there," she said. "If these women were always with these units, they would be in a much better position."

Hunt and her fellow plaintiffs say the combat exclusion policy is not mandated by any statute and violates their "rights to equal protection of the law under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment."

The effort to lift the policy has met resistance inside the military and out.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, writing in The Washington Post, said more study is needed to understand the impact that assigning women to the infantry or armor would have on "the precious and indefinable band of brothers effect so essential to winning in close combat."

Scales, an artillery officer, is a former commandant of the Army War College.

"Let's get the data ... to make absolutely sure women will fit in before we take the plunge," he wrote.

Marine Capt. Katie Petronio stirred debate over the summer with a piece in the Marine Corps Gazette detailing the physical toll of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"As a combat-experienced Marine officer, and a female, I am here to tell you that we are not all created equal, and attempting to place females in the infantry will not improve the Marine Corps as the Nation's force-in-readiness or improve our national security," she wrote.

Petronio described herself as a motivated and resilient former college hockey player who could bench press 145 pounds and squat 200. But during 10 months in Iraq, she wrote, "excessive" time carrying a full combat load caused her spine to compress nerves in her lower back.

In Afghanistan, where she led a combat engineer platoon in building patrol bases, the strain of combat operations and the stress of responsibility for young Marines in "an extremely kinetic environment" led to muscle atrophy in her legs that hindered her agility in firefights.

"It was evident that stress and muscular deterioration was affecting everyone regardless of gender," she wrote. "However, the rate of my deterioration was noticeably faster than that of male Marines."

Bhagwati, of the Service Women's Action Network, says all members should have the opportunity to train and compete for any job. When candidates are tested, she says, women should be held to the same standards as men.

"I think it's a lot simpler than folks are making it out to be," said Bhagwati, who served in the Marines from 1999 through 2004. "Now, whether are not there are tens of thousands of women who can pass those tests and achieve all those tasks is another question altogether. But what this suit is really all about is the opportunity to compete.

"Just open the doors and let women compete. And if they fail, then they fail. But if they succeed, then you need to allow them to do what they were trained to do."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts