Navy Seaman Recruit Kealy Parrish barely tops five feet. And at 110 pounds, she is not exactly tipping the scales. But training alongside the men at Navy "A" school, Parrish can definitely hold her weight.
"Today we went on a four-mile road run. I was running at the front of the pack with the males," Parrish, 19, of Marietta said, this week from where she is training in Texas.
In fact, many of Parrish's female compatriots meet and sometimes surpass the abilities of their male counterparts. But Parrish, a hospital corpsman, is worried that some women will not be able to follow their passion within the military.
JASMINE ROGERS The Marietta Times
Marietta resident and Marine Tasha Spencer poses in her Marine fatigues this week. Spencer thinks that women should be given the opportunity to serve in direct ground combat units and would like to eventually serve in the active duty infantry.
A lot of the males in the hospital field choose to go into the Fleet Marine Force, a field that requires rigorous training, said Parrish.
"I know a lot of females who want to do that because they don't like the clinical setting," she said.
However, only a certain number of assignments for the FMF are given out, and rarely do they go to females, she said.
About the suit
Hegar v. Panetta was filed in San Fransisco District Court Nov. 27.
Plaintiffs: Air Force Maj. Mary Hegar, Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, Marine Corps Lt. Colleen Farrell, Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell and Service Women's Action Network.
Defendant: Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense.
Asks that the court lift the military's combat exclusion policy, which bars females from certain active duty combat positions and thereby precludes them from 238,000 positions within the military.
"They want the hardcore males to go. They don't think that females can do that because of the stigma that females aren't as strong," said Parrish.
Now, a new lawsuit is challenging not only those stereotypes, but a longstanding military policy that prohibits women from officially holding combat positions.
The suit, filed Nov. 27 by four servicewomen, the Service Women's Action Network and the American Civil Liberties Union against U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta alleges that the military's current policy is unconstitutional.
"In terms of the legal framework, it's the 14th Amendment, equal protection under the law," explained Chris Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio.
As the plaintiffs see it, the policy limits female military members' potential for advancement by categorically disqualifying them for around 238,000 positions.
Specifically, the Pentagon's exclusion policy prevents women from being assigned to units whose primary objective is direct ground combat, such as infantry, artillery and tank units.
In fact, one of the plaintiffs, Marine Capt. Zoe Bedell said she left active duty because the policy limited her future prospects.
Bedell told the Associated Press she was frustrated that her advancement within the Marines was limited because she could not directly serve in combat units.
"The military is the last place where you are allowed to be discriminated against because of your gender," she told AP.
The suit has stirred up a wave of divided opinions nationally and locally, including among current and former female military members.
Some argue that the combat exclusion policy ignores the reality that women are already put in active combat situations.
Two of the plaintiffs, Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt and Air Force Maj. Mary Hegar have both received Purple Hearts after being wounded in combat-like situations. Bedell and Marine Corps Lt. Colleen Farrell have also served in Afghanistan.
The modern idea of a line of combat has changed. Women are now commonly assigned to combat duty, said Link.
"Their superiors kind of wink at it, but they get none of the credit," she said.
Waverly, W.Va. native Amanda Ingraham, 30, has seen plenty of combat situations, said her mother, Janet.
"I know my daughter has no problem going out and fighting with the men," she said.
U.S. Army Sgt. Amanda Ingraham, part of the military police and working dog handler, is serving her second tour of duty in Afghanistan and also served in Iraq. During her first tour, she was the gunner on top of a Humvee.
"When they got shot at, she would shoot back," said Janet Ingraham.
However, Amanda hasn't voiced that she feels held back in any respect. In fact, said her mother, the military has been fairly persistent in pushing Amanda through the ranks.
Still, many women, such as Bedell and her fellow plaintiffs, have their eyes set on one of the 238,000 jobs still unavailable to them.
"I personally would like to be active duty infantry. My whole purpose of going into the military was to serve and protect," said Marine Tasha Spencer, 21, of Marietta.
The Marine Corps, where fewer than seven percent of the soldiers are female, would likely be affected most if the suit is successful.
"Our jobs are mostly kind of set back. Either we are in legal administration, or aviation or working on Humvees," she said.
Though Spencer was recently medically discharged, she hopes to rejoin the Marines once a doctor clears her, and the repeal of the combat exclusion policy would open up the type of jobs she would like to hold.
But some soldiers, male and female alike, are skeptical about the overall impact of women in combat situations.
"You know, when I was in North Carolina (at boot camp), there were a lot of different opinions that I heard," Spencer said. "A lot of the males I heard said 'No, I don't think females should be infantry,' and then there were some females that said the same thing."
Former Marine Cpl. Karen Erb, 55, of Marietta, who joined the military in 1980, said she thinks women's capabilities are not the issue.
"I'm sure there are women out there who can hold their own and who can handle it mentally," she said.
However, there is no training that can override a man's basic instinct to protect a woman, Erb said.
"I think in a combat situation, the man's basic instinct is to protect the woman, and that might take their attention away from their surroundings," she said.
Marine Cpl. Ashley Miller, 22, of Waterford, agreed.
"When a woman gets shot and a man gets shot, most likely they are going to save the woman first. That's just gonna be the man's reaction," she said.
Could females on the front line be a distraction? It is a question many have levied, including the Marine Corps itself when it issued an anonymous online survey to 53,000 of its troops earlier this year that focused on the potential impact of doing away with the gender divide.
According to the Associated Press, the survey asked male Marines if they would be distracted or "feel obligated to protect female Marines."
Those survey results are expected to be released after they are reviewed by the Department of Defense.
An additional concern is that introducing women to stressful ground combat units would increase already high rates of sexual assault in the military.
The Department of Defense estimated there were around 19,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2011, though less than one-fifth of them were actually reported.
But many women believe doing away with policies that condone sexism would foster a greater sense of respect.
"I hope that if more women get out into the (Fleet Marine Force), men won't look at them like a piece of meat," said Parrish.
Former Army Capt. Katie Tucker, 37, of Waterford served from 1998 to 2006. Tucker, a transportation officer, recalled that her favorite assignment was being the only female officer among a staff of 50 men stationed in Thailand.
"I think they were always very respectful," recalled Tucker.
Other opponents of the lawsuit argue that women simply lack the physical makeup to perform the duties.
The Army Physical Fitness Test has different standards based on both age and gender. For example, men ages 17 to 21 need to be able to do 42 push-ups, 53 sit-ups, and run two miles in less than 16 minutes. Women in the same age bracket need to be able to do 19 push-ups, 53 sit-ups, and run two miles in under 22 and a half minutes.
But each new promotion comes with different standards, both physical, mental, and educational, said Tucker.
If females can meet the same standards, they should qualify for the same positions, argued Air Force Maj. Mary Hegar, a plaintiff in the current suit.
In a blog for the ACLU, Hegar wrote: "If there is one thing I've learned about the differences between us all throughout my years of service, it's this: putting the right person in the right job has very little to do with one's gender, race, religion, or other demographic descriptor. It has everything to do with one's heart, character, ability, determination and dedication."
Hegar and fellow plaintiffs are not the first group of women to file suit against the military. In May, two female army reservists filed a similar suit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
The Department of Defense has argued that it is working to open more doors for females. Earlier this year, they opened up 14,500 jobs to women.
But the plaintiffs, and some female service members say the doors of equality are not swinging open fast enough.
Congress first passed legislation officially recognizing women as members of the military in 1948, but capped their participation at 2 percent of the total military population. That restriction was lifted in 1967 and the number of women in service began to rise throughout the 1970s.
In 1994, the government removed restrictions on more than 250,000 military positions for women, but at the same time enacted the combat exclusion policy that so many women are still fighting against.
"In the military we still don't have as many rights as we should," said Parrish. "Maybe I won't see it in my career in the military, but maybe we will see the stop of these whole-gender stigmas."