LOS ANGELES - A group of US servicewomen is suing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta over the Pentagon’s long-standing policy barring women from thousands of ground combat positions, they announced Tuesday.

Four female soldiers, including two who won Purple Hearts for bravery in action in Afghanistan, slammed the policy as an “injustice to the women ... who continue to put their lives on the line for their country.”

“Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, and I have proven my ability every step of the way,” said Major Mary Jennings Hegar, a rescue helicopter pilot who flew Medevac missions in Afghanistan.

Her aircraft was shot down in 2009 while rescuing three injured soldiers, and she had to engage in combat, returning fire and sustaining shrapnel wounds. She was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.

“The ability to serve in combat has very little to do with gender or any other generalization. It has everything to do with heart, character, ability, determination and dedication,” she said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “This policy is an injustice to the women who have come before us and who continue to put their lives on the line for their country.” Women are still barred from ground combat units, although female troops have found themselves in combat anyway over the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, with more than 140 killed on the battlefield.

They are banned from infantry, armor units and special forces because the military maintains that female recruits lack the upper body strength to carry out the tasks required in those units.  The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court in San Francisco, by the four servicewoman and the Service Women’s Action Network, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and law firm Munger, Tolles& Olson. It cites Panetta as the defendant, according to a copy of the lawsuit seen by AFP.

Besides Hegar, the other women, who all served in Afghanistan, are Marine Captain Zoe Bedell; Army Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt, who won a Purple Heart after her vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb; and Marine First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell.

“These women served their country bravely and honorably and have demonstrated their ability to distinguish themselves under fire just as much as their male comrades,” said ACLU lawyer Ariela Migdal.

“This antiquated policy doesn’t reflect the nature of modern warfare or the actual contributions of women in uniform,” she added.