01/29/2013 07:18 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

It's Time to Smash the Brass Ceiling

The staggering number of sexual assaults committed against American women serving in the military is estimated at 19,000 per year. Only when the law recognizes women who fight as warriors will this number be reduced.

That's why both a lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court in California and last Thursday's announcement by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the "combat exclusion" policy of the Department of Defense will be revised are welcome news on many fronts. The end to legalized discrimination will give 214,000 active-duty American servicewomen the opportunity to compete for 238,000 positions across the Armed Forces currently denied them because of their gender. It also means women will be less likely subject to sexual harassment and assault.

Don't just take my word for it. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, agrees.

"I have to believe, the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally," Dempsey is quoted as saying in a story reported in the Christian Science Monitor.

The combat exclusion policy was adopted during the Clinton Administration in 1994 and says women can "be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground."

This rhetoric doesn't reflect the real-life experience of soldiers fighting in today's military theatres, however, and causes real and lasting harm. It both stifles opportunity and nurtures the abuse of power. So while politicians wrestle with the issues of equality of opportunity and freedom from assault in committee rooms, some women are taking their fight to the court room.

Major Mary Jennings Hegar is a combat helicopter pilot who served three tours in Afghanistan for the Air National Guard. She successfully completed a grueling training program that qualified her to fly medevac missions in extremely dangerous combat conditions on a daily basis in remote mountains. Her helicopter took direct fire regularly, and on one occasion her aircraft was shot down as she was evacuating injured soldiers. Hegar herself was shot and she returned fire. Ultimately, she was able to successfully complete the rescue mission. For this she was awarded the Purple Heart, recognizing her "outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty."

Because of the combat exclusion policy, Major Hegar is barred from competing for thousands of advanced positions, leadership training and entire career fields solely because she is a woman. Hegar and others brought suit in federal court alleging the policy violates their rights to equal protection of the law, as secured by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

All women are denied career opportunities like Hegar. Meanwhile, half of the women deployed to Afghanistan with her report being sexually harassed, and one quarter report they were sexually assaulted. This is no coincidence. When women are by law declared unfit to carry out essential functions of the armed services because of their gender, they are not treated equally. The official policy that legalizes discrimination creates an automatic power imbalance, with only men at the top. Sexual harassment and assault in the military is about the abuse of this power. Lust and uncontrollable testosterone have nothing to do with it.

The lifting of the combat exclusion policy is good news for women directly and their families, and for the United States as a whole. Equality of opportunity will increase combat-readiness, strengthen the Armed Services and reduce oppression, harassment and abuse within the ranks. The political attempt to address the issue is welcome, but will be the subject of compromise. Also, attacking the issue in the court room is important. A declaration that women soldiers have a constitutional right to equal protection of the law will both serve as a deterrent of harassment and assault and a much-needed remedy.

I applaud Secretary Panetta and the Joints Chiefs of Staff for taking the first step towards aligning America's military policy with the reality on the ground for our troops. I also am grateful to Major Hegar and others for demanding justice in the United States District Court. We honor the sacrifice of those who serve by forever striving for more freedom, more liberty and more equality.