In 2009, Congress set up the Military Leadership Diversity Commission to evaluate the combat exclusion policy and determine whether it should be reversed. The group is made up of high-ranking former and current military officials. They’ve been meeting regularly for more than a year, and at times, the debate has gotten heated. Late last year, a panel of active-duty women and veterans testified before the commission. During that exchange, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen expressed his concerns about getting rid of the ban. “Here is my problem,” Peterson said. “We’re talking about ground combat, nose-to-nose with the bad guys, living in the mud, eating what’s on your back, no hygiene and no TV. How many of you have seen how infantrymen, the ground troopers, live, and how many of you would volunteer to live like that?” Tammy Duckworth was an Apache helicopter pilot in Iraq and lost both of her legs in combat. Now she’s the No. 2 at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She replied immediately: “I’ve lived like that. I’ve lived out there with the guys, and I would do it. It’s about the job.” Besides getting the policy to reflect reality on the ground, there are other arguments for opening up the combat arms to women. A major reason is the issue of promotion. The U.S. military recently commissioned Ann Dunwoody as the first female four-star general. But Dunwoody rose through the ranks in logistics, not through artillery or infantry command – and it’s those combat jobs that get women on the fast track to big promotions. And since women can’t have those jobs, critics of the policy say they’re put at a disadvantage. Supporters of the current policy say it is clear women are already doing this kind of work to some extent, but, they ask, should they be? That’s the question. And they point to several issues. Pregnancy. What if a woman in a combat unit gets pregnant and can’t deploy when her unit needs her? Privacy. There are perpetual concerns about how men and women can undress and carry out bodily functions in the tight and intimate living conditions found in war zones. Unit cohesion. Does having a woman around create distractions? A ‘Crisp’ Line Kayla Williams was a sergeant in the Army, and in 2003 her unit was part of the initial invasion that rolled across Iraq. She’s out of the military now and lives near Washington, D.C. As an Army intelligence officer, Williams was put in several situations where she was exposed to combat even though that wasn’t in her job description. At one point during her deployment, she and her unit were sent to a remote outpost in the northern part of Iraq. For six months, she was the only woman living with an all-male unit on the side of a mountain. She describes the utter boredom that infected her unit in Iraq for days on end as they waited to pick up enemy signals. There was nothing to distract them – no phones, no Internet – so young men in her unit made up ways to kill time. “They played a game of throwing rocks to try to get the rocks through the holes that had developed in the crotches of all their pants, and later, they started throwing rocks at my boobs as well as part of this game,” Williams says. “So is that harassing me or including me? Treating me the way they were treating one another? I thought I was being included and treated as one of the guys, but it’s never that simple.” In fact, it got really complicated. “They would include me in their camaraderie, but every once in a while it would slip over a line, and they would want to see my boobs. It was just tricky,” Williams says. “Later, I came to think that if I wanted to avoid things going in a direction I wasn’t comfortable with, I had to keep that line much crisper.” Sexual Harassment Vs. Sexual Assault Williams’ story brings up another controversial part of the women in combat debate: sexual harassment and sexual assault. Just last week a group of veterans and active-duty service members sued the Pentagon, saying some military commanders aren’t doing enough to prosecute sexual assault cases. The Pentagon says the issue is a “command priority,” and that it is working on making sure all troops are safe from sexual abuse. Williams says there are all kinds of reasons why sexual harassment and assault can happen, but one source of the problem in the military, she says, is that women aren’t seen as equals by other troops. “I believe that the combat exclusion actually exacerbates gender tensions and problems within the military, because the fact that women can’t be in combat arms jobs allows us to be portrayed as less than fully soldiers,” Williams says. The Military Leadership Diversity Commission is expected to tell Congress late March that the combat exclusion policy should be eliminated.
The idea of being a hero doesn’t really sit well with Leigh Ann Hester, so having an action figure modeled after her is, in a word, surreal. The doll, decked out in Army fatigues, an M4 rifle and small Oakley sunglasses, is supposed to be a tribute to Hester, a sergeant in the Army National Guard who received the Silver Star in 2005 for valor during a firefight in Iraq. “The action figure doesn’t really look a whole lot like me,” she says. “The box is better.” Hester has had a hard time seeing herself in any of the hero stuff that has been made of her – and there has been a lot: paintings, posters, even a wax figure on permanent exhibit at the Army Women’s Museum in Fort Lee, Va. Leigh Ann Hester, now a police officer in the suburbs of Nashville, Tenn., is the first female soldier since World War II to receive the Silver Star medal for valor in combat. When Hester enlisted with the National Guard in the spring of 2001, she had been selling shoes at the local Shoe Pavilion near her home in Nashville, Tenn. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened right before she left for basic training. She remembers the drill sergeants telling her and the other recruits that they would be the ones to go to war. And that’s exactly what happened. In July 2004, Hester was ordered to Iraq. On the ground in Baghdad, Hester was assigned to a military police unit; the job was to protect critical supply routes. “Basically, we would go out in our Humvees and we would clear the route for [improvised explosive devices] or insurgents before the convoys would start coming through,” Hester says. Roughly once a week, her team would actually escort a convoy on these roads. According to the Pentagon’s policy, women are not allowed to be assigned to units where their primary mission is to “engage in direct combat on the ground.” Hester wasn’t in an artillery or infantry unit. She was a military police officer in the National Guard assigned to protect convoys. But in counterinsurgencies like Afghanistan and Iraq, a routine patrol can turn into ground combat in an instant. And in Hester’s case, getting shot at was the routine. “I can’t tell you how many times our squad got blown up,” she says. “I mean, it’s more than I can count, probably. I mean, it was nothing for us to get shot at every other day or more.” Major Firefight She remembers one day in particular. It was a Sunday morning around 9 a.m. She and her team were taking a convoy on a road east of Baghdad. They got 3 miles down the road and started hearing gunshots and explosions. The vehicle in front of hers started to turn onto a side road. “As soon as they started to make that turn, they got a direct hit with [a rocket propelled grenade]. Bam! I was like ‘Oh God, are they OK?’ ” Hester recalls. Three members of Hester’s team were shot and wounded. Dozens of insurgents were firing on them. Hester’s squad leader, Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, grabbed her and told her to follow him. They ran toward the insurgents’ trench line, took up position and started firing. “It’s not like you see in the movies,” she says. “They don’t, like, get shot and get blown back 5 feet. They just take a round, and they collapse.” The whole thing lasted about 45 minutes. When it was over, everyone in her unit had survived. By any definition, it was a major firefight – direct ground combat – exactly what women are NOT supposed to engage in, according to the Pentagon’s combat exclusion policy. Hester and Nein were both awarded Silver Stars for their actions that day. Hester keeps hers in a box in her closet at home. It’s a big gold star with a little silver star in the middle of it. The Silver Star is the third-highest decoration in the U.S. military for valor. (The Medal of Honor is the highest, followed by the Distinguished Service Cross.) A handful of Army nurses were awarded Silver Stars back in World War II for evacuating a hospital under enemy fire. Hester is the first woman to win the award since then – and the only woman to get it for engaging in direct combat with the enemy. When it happened, she got a whole lot of attention. There were network TV interviews and trips to the nation’s capital. Playing Hero So for the past five years, she has had to play hero. “I have family that always want to tell the story, and I get put in a position where I need to shake hands,” she says, with people who thank her for her service. “I don’t know, it’s something I haven’t gotten used to.” Since Hester was awarded the Silver Star, a woman serving as a medic in Afghanistan has also received it. But Hester was first. When asked if she thinks of herself as a pioneer, she says, “I’d like to think that, you know, not that it was me, but that a female was in a firefight-slash-ambush – big enough for her actions – that she received a medal.” Hester wasn’t looking for a chance to be in direct ground combat, but the fight found her and she stepped up. “You know, it’s just something that happened one day, and I was trained to do what I did, and I did it. We all lived through that battle,” she says. In 2009, Hester got out of the service. For the past two years, she has gone back to her other career as a police officer in a small town in Tennessee, where she lives with her two dogs. But late last year, she started missing military life and re-enlisted with the National Guard. “I’m glad that I took a break,” Hester says. “I really am. It made me realize that I really enjoyed being a soldier, and it’s something that I missed and it’s something that I’m good at. And I look forward to getting deployed again.” So the Silver Star goes back up in the closet. And Leigh Ann Hester goes back to being a soldier.
When Wilma Vaught joined the Air Force in 1957 and started her first day of training, she was unsure about a lot of things, even the basics. “I was trying to find the building I was supposed to go to, and I saw someone walking along in uniform – a woman – and she saluted me and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to salute. It was a very embarrassing thing,” Vaught says. The one thing she did know is that she wanted to be in charge. “I wanted to lead,” says the now-retired brigadier general. And she has been doing just that ever since. I met Vaught at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. It’s a museum with exhibits marking women’s contributions to the U.S. military. There are all kinds of old photos and uniforms on display, and quotations from service women etched into the ceiling, including one from an Army nurse during World War II: Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom. That our resolve was just as great as the brave men who stood among us. That the tears fell just as hard for those we left behind us. Vaught is the president of the foundation that runs the memorial. On this day, she’s dressed in a dark suit, sensible shoes, her silver hair cropped short. She looks the part. The museum, she says, is “a place where we build the story of what women have done – what they’ve accomplished, what they went through to get there.” ‘How To Be Charming’ It’s a story she and others in her generation helped write. Vaught joined the military right after the Korean War, about 10 years after President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. That law opened the services up to women as permanent, regular members but with strict conditions: If a woman got pregnant, she had to be discharged. Each service had to limit the number of women to 2% of their overall force. And women weren’t allowed to serve in combat or command men. “When I came into the Air Force, I couldn’t hope to be a general because the law said women couldn’t be generals,” Vaught says This was partly because of popular perception at the time. According to Vaughn, when the congressional committees were putting together the Armed Services Integration Act, several of the members brought up the fact that women would be in their 50s about the time they would be considered for admiral or general officer. And they realized that around that time women would be going through menopause and might make, as Vaught put it, “irrational decisions.” As a result, women in the military could only be promoted so high. Still, there was recognition that if women were going to be in the service, they needed officers who could lead them. It was the 1950s, a time when women were expected to have a husband and children. But Vaught wanted a career – in the military. But the military wasn’t really sure how to be a coed force. Vaught went through a special officers training course designed explicitly for women. As Vaught describes it, the course was a bit different from the men’s officer training. “We had training on how to sit, how to put on makeup. We didn’t have as aggressive physical training as the men did,” she says. Was it strange that female Air Force officers were being trained how to put on lipstick and eye shadow? “Well, that’s the way it was. All the services were doing this at that time,” she says. “We had to learn how to be charming and attractive. That’s the way it was.” Wilma Vaught served in Vietnam for a year. “I spent the whole year wearing a skirt,” she says. “You don’t see that today. They’re in their battle dress uniforms.” Vietnam War Brings Change There were other frustrations. Vaught remembers that there were jobs on the flight line that women could actually do better than men because they had small hands that could get into small spaces. But, she says, if a woman got trained for one of those jobs and assigned there, they would “put her at a desk job inside to handle the work orders or something instead of sending her out on the flight line to do what she had been trained to do.” A few years later, the Vietnam War changed things for women. Tens of thousands of men were drafted to the military, and thousands of women signed up voluntarily. The military’s policy kept women out of the combat zone until the forces were stretched so thin that the policy was reversed. In 1967, the military lifted its cap on the number of women who could serve and decided that women could serve as general officers. At that point, Vaught was sent to Saigon. We’re sitting in the exhibit hall at the women’s military memorial, and she shows me a photo of herself back then, standing in front of the small office building where she worked. She thinks about how different her experience in Vietnam was compared with what women are doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘A Different Military’ Vaught broke her fair share of glass ceilings. She was the first woman to deploy with an Air Force bomber wing. She was promoted to brigadier general in 1980, and when she retired five years later, she was only one of seven female generals or admirals in all the armed forces. But in close to 30 years of military service, she never had to fire a gun. In fact, she got her brother-in-law to teach her how to use one because the Air Force wouldn’t. But today, hundreds of thousands of women have served in wars with no clear front lines, often caught up in direct combat. Vaught wonders aloud, “If I were in the military today, would I be able to do these things? I would like to think I would, but I don’t know, because, you know, the challenges are just so great. It’s a different military. It really is.” Maybe so – but it’s a military now filled with women – because Vaught wanted not just to serve but to lead.
Heidi Brown’s uniform is decorated with one small star, which marks her as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army. But at this point in her career, she’s not sure how much higher she can climb. “We haven’t had a woman division commander, corps commander, chief of staff of the Army, vice chief of the Army, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Why not? I do see that the opportunities are limited,” she says. Only one woman has been promoted to four star general. That was Ann Dunwoody in 2008. But Brown points out that Dunwoody rose through the ranks in logistics, not in a combat function. Not all four stars are created equal in the military. The ones from combat arms tend to get the most elite jobs. Brown works in Air Defense Artillery, one of the only combat units in the Army that does allow women. “In 2003, with the initial invasion into Iraq, I commanded a brigade. And I was the only woman that commanded and have been the only woman who commanded a combat arms brigade in combat. Still,” Brown says. So Brown is in a strange spot. She has climbed the career ladder to a point where there aren’t any women coming up right behind her, but she doesn’t see a lot of women above her, either. “When I was selected to command my brigade, I got great advice from my mentor. He said, ‘It’s going to feel really lonely. It’s lonely anyway, but it’s going to feel really lonely because it’s just you and then the other male brigade commanders,’ ” Brown says. “I’m female, I’m single. They’re all male. They’re all married. They all have kids. I have a dog.” ‘Coded Out’ To Women Brown points out that a lot of women abandon the military career track. They make other choices in their lives, maybe want to devote more time to family, and they stop being competitive. But she says the women who are ambitious and want the top leadership positions are handicapped by the Pentagon’s policy that bars women from being assigned to units whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat. Earlier in her career, a battalion commander wanted her to be his operations officer. But when he went to file the paperwork he was told that the position was “coded out to women,” which meant that no woman could have that job because she’d be working for a unit involved in direct combat. The whole thing still annoys Brown, and she bangs her fist against the table when she talks about it. “I could be an intel officer. I could be the supply officer. I could be the executive officer. I could not be the operations officer. It was coded out,” Brown says. There were other instances in her career where gender came into play – and not in a good way. It was 1983. She was a young lieutenant in Germany on her first deployment, and she had a commander who liked to drink a lot. “I just remember one night, he got drunk and was pounding on my door saying, ‘You blankety-blank. You know you want it. Open the door,’ ” she says. Brown called another officer, who came over and sent him away. Later, the man came back and banged on her door again. Again she called her friend, and this time he knocked the man around a little bit. Still, Brown was furious. The next morning she walked into the commander’s office, looked him in the eye and told him, “You ever do that again, I will destroy you.” That was almost 30 years ago. Since then, Brown has worked her way up the chain of command, from major to lieutenant colonel, colonel and, finally, in 2008, she was pinned with a star and made a brigadier general. But, she says, “Gender now shuts the door for me.” ‘I Needed To Be Strong’ Brown says it’s almost impossible to get on the promotion fast track in the Army without leading troops in ground combat, which women aren’t allowed to do. She doesn’t think the solution is to open up all of the combat arms to women. Instead, she thinks serving in elite combat arms groups should no longer be a prerequisite for the top military jobs. She wants to be the commandant of West Point, her alma mater, but that job has typically been held by an infantryman. Brown says what matters isn’t job or gender but a demonstrated ability to lead. For her, that test came in 2003 in Iraq. One of the units under her command was ambushed. There was a firefight, and nine of her soldiers were killed. There was nothing Brown could have done to prevent the ambush. But now she had to set an example for her troops. A couple of days after the incident, she met up with the unit’s battalion commander. “I had my driver drive me over to him, and we just bear-hugged one another and he wept. And I let him, and I just bit my lip because I knew that I needed to be strong. Did I want to? You bet I wanted to cry,” Brown says. But as a woman, she felt that she couldn’t. That was eight years ago. Brown is working in the Pentagon now – far from the stress of combat – but she still has ambitions. What would she do if she were offered one of those top jobs that she says women should get a shot at – division commander in Afghanistan? She pauses before answering. “Could I do it? I think I could. Would it be difficult? You bet. Probably the hardest thing I would ever do in my life. I would want to make sure that I was physically [and] emotionally prepared, because failure is not an option,” she says. Because when you’re the first and you fail, she says, chances are you’ll be the last. Info provided by NPR