Marine officer Colleen Farrell '08 at the November news conference announcing the lawsuit against the DOD.
AP PHOTO/BEN MARGOT
On the Legal Front Lines for Female Troops
When news broke in November that four female soldiers, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, had filed suit against the Defense Department over its restrictions on women in combat, it was a historic moment. Even more historic was what followed in January: The announcement that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was lifting the ban on women serving in combat—a decision that will allow women to officially move into frontline positions.
Colleen Farrell ’08, one of the four soldiers who filed the suit, is at the center of the story.
Farrell, who was deployed to southern Afghanistan in 2010, was moved to join the suit by the experiences she had as a Marine first lieutenant in a war zone. Stationed in volatile Helmand Province, she went on daily patrols and worked with the Marine Corps’ newly created female engagement teams in their efforts to connect with Afghan women. (See the winter 2011 issue of Haverford magazine.)
“During my deployment, I faced a lot of discrimination and unnecessary roadblocks that prevented my team’s mission from being accomplished,” says Farrell. To comply with the Defense Department’s Combat Exclusion Policy for women, Farrell’s entire team had to return to the main base every 45 days. Not only did battalion commanders have to reschedule major operations to accommodate this, she says, but those trips back to the base put her Marines in unnecessary danger, as the convoy had to travel though dangerous areas where insurgents had mined roads.
“Because there are no women in the infantry, ad hoc teams like the female engagement team were created to operate with combat units. My teams patrolled every day with the infantry units, lived in the same outposts as the infantry units and fought in combat with the infantry units. However, after returning back home, they did not receive the same recognition for their combat experience.”
Yet the decision to join the lawsuit was a difficult one for Farrell, a Quaker whose Meeting in her native Mullica Hill, N.J., supported her decision to join the armed forces. “I knew my command and fellow Marines would not approve of the manner in which I was speaking out against the policy,” she says. “However, knowing that this was the right thing to do for the future of female service members made it a lot easier.”
Farrell left active service just after the lawsuit was announced and is now a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve. “I think if I had remained in the military, I would have faced several career risks,” says Farrell, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and works for fellow Ford Ted Rybeck ’85 in the social media services industry. “I know many honorable women who declined to be in this lawsuit because of the potential consequences.”
Farrell says she was surprised and thrilled when she heard the secretary of defense’s announcement about lifting the Combat Exclusion Policy. “It was completely unexpected and something I thought would take years, maybe decades, to accomplish,” she says. “I am cautiously optimistic, however, because there are still ways in which those who oppose us can prevent women from joining the infantry ranks.”
For now, the lawsuit has been suspended as the plaintiffs—and the nation—wait to see the plans for implementation that military leaders must present to the secretary of defense in May.