SAN FRANCISCO — Capt. Zoe Bedell graduated at the top of her Marine Corps officer candidates class. In deployments to Afghanistan, she oversaw "female engagement teams" that accompanied male infantry units into the field — living and working in identical conditions.
Yet since 1994, the Defense Department has formally excluded women from most direct ground combat positions, creating a growing disconnect with the realities of warfare.
Bedell said she left active duty last year because the policy limited her potential for promotion by failing to officially recognize her combat leadership experience. (In military parlance, the female teams that played a critical role in communicating with Afghan women were "attached," not "assigned," to infantry units.)
On Tuesday, she joined a federal lawsuit challenging the blanket exclusion.
"The modern battlefield means there are no front lines or safe areas," Bedell, 27 and now a Marine Corps reservist, said during a news conference at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. The ACLU is representing her, three female members of the Marines, the California Air National Guard and the Army Reserve, and the nonprofit Service Women's Action Network.
"My Marines supported infantry units," Bedell said. "They patrolled every day. They wore the same gear. They carried the same rifles. And when my Marines were attacked, they fought back."
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the sweeping restriction based on gender is unconstitutional because it is not justified by a specific governmental objective, as the U.S. Supreme Court has required.
Women effectively serve in direct combat, the suit said, often without the level of training provided to their male counterparts or the recognition that would enable them to advance.
"The policy has the effect of closing off whole career fields for women," said Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Women Rights Project. "We demand that the U.S. military bring its policy into line with modern society."
Pentagon press secretary George Little declined Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit, which names Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
In February, Panetta ordered that about 14,000 military jobs be opened to women, Little said, adding that the armed services were exploring easing restrictions further.
"I think his record is very strong on this issue," Little said of Panetta.
In the early 1990s, Congress lifted bans on women flying attack aircraft and serving on combat ships; two years ago, the Navy lifted restrictions that had prevented women from serving on submarines.
Women now make up more than 14% of active-duty military personnel and 20% of recruits. Although upward of 238,000 jobs are off limits to them, many women — particularly in the Army and Marine Corps — have been caught up in combat while delivering supplies, providing medical aid and serving in other capacities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than 150 women have died in those wars and more than 950 have been injured, according to Defense Department figures.
In May, the first federal lawsuit to challenge the combat exclusion policy was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of two career Army Reserve soldiers who said it restricted their earnings, promotions and retirement benefits. That case is pending.
Tuesday's suit, Migdal said, is "not about money" but about enabling women to achieve their potential.
One plaintiff, California Air National Guard Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, earned a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with a Valor Device for showing "outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty" while exchanging fire with the enemy.
A helicopter pilot, Hegar, 36, was on a medevac mission in Afghanistan in 2009 when her aircraft took fire. With 15 pieces of shrapnel in her right arm and leg, she returned to retrieve three wounded soldiers on the ground.
"My gender has never been a factor in accomplishing my unit's mission," said Hegar, who is moving into a reservist liaison position because of what she said were gender-based career limitations. "We were Americans with the sole purpose of getting everybody home alive."
Some who oppose lifting the exclusion have argued that women may lack the required physical strength, and that their presence could compel male counterparts to distracting "acts of chivalry" on the battlefield.
Even some military women have expressed such concerns.
"If a guy goes down in a combat situation … and he ends up dying because the girl couldn't pull him out in time, how do you explain that to his wife and family?" asked Stephanie Vazquez, a former soldier who served in Iraq in 2008. "It's also pretty much in guys' nature to protect girls. That might be a distraction."
But the plaintiffs in Tuesday's case said the nation's military was hurt by failing to consider qualified candidates.
"I know that the Army can be better," said U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, 28, who was awarded a Purple Heart after suffering shrapnel injuries. "And I'm going to help the Army be better by poking it with a stick."
Romney reported from San Francisco and Zavis from Los Angeles. Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.