Truman National Security Project

Women in combat is nothing new, says retired Navy captain


After 230 years, we can finally tell Deborah Sampson that a disguise is no longer needed: Women can now serve openly in combat. Sampson fought in the Revolutionary War disguised as a man.

Or, we can now honor Dr. Mary Walker, who served in the Civil War openly as a lieutenant in the Medical Corp and is still the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.

There’s also Harriet Tubman, who is most known for her exploits on the Underground Railroad freeing slaves; but she is also the first woman to officially lead an armed expedition in war. At her death, she was honored with a military funeral.

Most defense analysts will say Desert Storm was the defining moment for women in combat. But it was an incremental process starting with women serving officially in both World Wars. It was not a government “social experiment” — women were needed.

While 41,000 women deployed in Desert Storm, 350,000 women served during World War II. Three hundred Army nurses came ashore on D-Day. Starting in the early 1970’s, the lines between “combat” and “non-combat” jobs became increasingly blurred and women were assigned to traditionally all-male jobs. In the Navy, women have commanded war ships, Carrier Strike Groups, and a Carrier Air Wing and are now serving on submarines. Other services have seen similar progress.

As the role of women increased, critics always ask the same questions: Do women have what it takes physically and mentally for combat-related jobs? Will their presence disrupt unit cohesion? What about the “privacy” issues, such as where will they go to the bathroom?

The movie “Wing and a Prayer” is about the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Just before the climactic battle, Don Ameche’s character gave the pilots an intelligence briefing on the Japanese forces they needed to destroy. While watching with my father, I turned to him and said, “Daddy, that’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.” I was 5 years old.

My father was a man ahead of his time. He had been in the Army in the aftermath of World War II when it was still segregated. He could have burst my bubble; instead he looked at me and said, “This is America. You can be whatever you want.” In 1973, 20 years before policies changed and made it a common practice, I was the first woman in Naval history assigned to a navy combat squadron as an intelligence officer. You’ve never heard of me because it worked, and the guys accepted me.

It wasn’t easy. My squadron wanted to have bragging rights of the first woman but didn’t actually expect me to do anything. At my lowest moment I was in my office crying when a grizzled navy Chief knocked on my door. He told me, “We chiefs have been talking and we just wanted you to know we think you’re the best junior officer in the squadron.” The Navy is run by chiefs and admirals. That one single moment gave me the strength to carry on. At the time of my retirement, I was the highest ranking African-American female in the Navy.

I’m not particularly athletic, but as I became older I deliberately used the physical standards for men my age as my goal to pass the twice yearly physical fitness test. As for the killing, women in the military have killed whether it’s dropping bombs, providing close air support, or in my case, directing military forces to the targets to attack. Israel, Germany, and Canada have successfully integrated women into their combat ground forces. Restroom facilities were never a problem; although it did require a lot of contortion using the available facilities found on military aircraft.

Outstanding job performance trumps criticism. I’ve participated in two wars and countless crises and have received many awards and decorations; but I’m most proud of my two Battle E ribbons. They’re an award given annually by the Navy to the best combat units. I proudly stand on the shoulders of all those military women who came before me.

Gail Harris is a senior advisor to the Truman Project.This post originally appeared in the Denver Post.