“One Team. One Fight”.
Over the course of the last year, I’ve had the honor of spending some time with Veterans of the current wars and their civilian supporters. Inevitably when participants realize that I too am a Veteran someone raises the issue of women in combat. There have been two common themes. One concern is now that women are on ships, the sailors will be engaging in sex. The second was if women soldiers or marines were injured on the battlefield their male comrades would be unduly upset and that would be a negative affect on unit cohesion and combat capability.
Before answering and in order to ensure my credibility, I should explain that I was the Navy’s test case for assignment to an operational (combat) unit in the 1970’s, 20 years before it became a common practice. I was assigned to one of the Navy’s land based aviation squadrons.
Someone usually says if that is true why is it that no one has ever heard of me? I reply because it was a success and the guys accepted me. That doesn’t mean it was easy and I didn’t have my ups and downs. I then proceed to address the issues using humor to take the sting out of my words. First, there was sex on ships before women were assigned. I know that because I had friends in NCIS. Second when any military person is killed or wounded it will affect their co-workers. I personally have a hard time watching news reports on our men and women killed and wounded while participating in wars. It hurts me to my core.
This brings me to what I’d like to blog about. I have to admit I’m a Geek and have actually read the Republican Platform. Two passages concerned me:
“We reject the use of the military as a platform for social experimentation and will not accept attempts to undermine military priorities and mission readiness.”
“We support military women’s exemption from direct ground combat units and infantry battalions. We affirm the cultural values that encourage selfless service and superiority in the battle, and we oppose anything which might divide or weaken team cohesion, including intra-military special interest demonstrations.”
When I joined the Navy in 1973, it was a time of tremendous cultural change. The Navy actively recruited women and African Americans as part of this effort. Many say what drove this effort were a series of race riots, yes you read that correctly, on Navy ships. Up until that time African American males had been primarily confined to jobs like messmen and women were confined primarily to administrative jobs. The Chief of Naval Operations at the time was an extraordinary visionary named Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. His attitude was: we know we’re not perfect, why don’t you join up and help us change.
I’ve got to hand it to the military when they take something on it’s a sight to see. For example, when I first joined, women couldn’t have children, not even step children. If you did you had to get out of the Navy. It took a Supreme Court decision to change it but now the Department of Defense if the world’s largest day care provider. While all of this change was happening many of us joked that the military was a “social experiment”. What we meant was the military took a culturally and sexually diverse organization made up of people bought up in different parts of the country and who came from different economic and social backgrounds and developed the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen. We believed there was much the civilian work place could learn from us in the area of diversity and affirmative action. I suspect that whoever put “we reject the use of the military as platform for social experimentation” is not familiar with how the military does business.
I would say that also applies to the “we support military women’s exemption from direct ground combat units and infantry battalions” part. Two points and I’ll shut up. First the nature of war has changed dramatically and is no longer conducted just on traditional fields of battle. Terrorism has been around a long time and only came up on the radar of most civilians after 9/11. When I was challenged on the women in combat thing during my first assignment, I always replied because of terrorism any location had the potential to become a battlefield. When you add in how technology has changed the way we conduct war along with new threats like cyberwar it tells me that the nature of warfare has changed. Second point, woman are already flying combat aircraft, commanding combat ships, accompanying combat patrols as part of the Female Engagement Teams concept, etc. All reports indicate the women are performing their duties well. Naysayers may say not all. I would counter not all men can hack it either.
The bottom line for me has always been can an individual do the job? The military spends a lot of time and money training personnel. As an intelligence officer, I took the same courses as my male peers. The only issue would be could I perform well once I graduated from my training. I believe the training standards should always be the same for women as it is for men. That is the approach the Marines are taking as they women for the first time through the infantry officer school inQuantico,Va.
As I reflect back on a career where I was the first woman assigned for most of my jobs, I recognize what the real problem was. It wasn’t me “a woman in a male domain”; it was the handful of people prepared to condemn me on sight and or go out of their way try to bully me or to keep me from performing the job I was sent to too. My Dad gave me one of the best pieces of advice on this stating: “If someone has a problem with you because you are Black or female that is THEIR problem, don’t make it yours”. I always focused on the command mission and not on the few “haters”. Halfway through my first assignment and at my lowest point, one of the command’s Chiefs came up to me and said: “Ma’am, we Chiefs have been talking and just wanted you to know we think you’re the best junior officer in the squadron”. Everyone knows Chiefs and Admirals are the ones who run the Navy. If the Chiefs said it I felt it must be true. That one single moment gave me the strength to go on.
During the last part of my naval career I kept a sign on my desk that said: “Lead, follow, or get out of my way”. To those who try to turn back the clock and limit the role of women in the military, I say the same thing: Lead, follow, or Get Out of the Way. Just as you would a male military member, let them rise or fall on their own merit. It is my hope that the Chiefs and Sergeant Majors are keeping everyone in line and living the slogan: “One Team. One Fight”.
Gail Harris is a Truman Security Fellow.