As Women Rise In The Military, So Does Strife Confusion Grows About Females’ Roles; Men Fear Climate Prevents Honest Evaluation Of Changes
“What are you doing, Airborne?” Staff Sgt. Martha McCleland barks at some burly young soldiers lounging around the lobby of the 509th Regimental barracks.
Jumping like dozing golden retrievers spooked by a terrier, the 6-footers stand at awkward attention as McCleland, 4-foot-11 and 107 pounds, orders them to “find a job” and clears the room with an efficiency gained from years of practice.
McCleland, 34, and one of the Army’s two female Airborne instructors, or “Black Hats” in service parlance, is a symbol of the new norm in America’s armed services.
Women have become integral to the services and increasingly function in key roles, even at mostly male installations such as Fort Benning, the Home of the Infantry.
But as the current sexual-harassment controversy demonstrates, the services haven’t solved all of the problems that come with creating the world’s first truly gender-neutral military. Harassment is only one aspect of the challenge.
Men resent the special attention they believe is being given to ensure the success of some women in uniform, while women complain that they’re not treated as “real soldiers” by members of the remaining all-male units. Others fear that a culture of political correctness is impeding an honest evaluation of women’s contribution to the art of war.
The rising influx of women - they now account for more than one-fifth of all Army recruits - isn’t settling these issues so much as creating pressure for more change.
The Pentagon’s decision two years ago to open up everything to women except direct combat may actually have added to the confusion - since women can now participate in roles that seem to be combat in everything but name.
After much internal argument, the Pentagon said women are eligible for all jobs except ground combat where there is “a high probability of direct physical combat with” a hostile force. The application of that rule has led to some perplexing distinctions:
Women can be on Navy surface combat ships, but not submarines.
They can fire Patriot anti-missile missiles, but not another type of artillery rocket called MLRS (Multiple Launched Rocket Systems).
They can fly jet fighters and helicopters, including tank-killer Apaches, but not helicopters used by the Special Forces.
They can train infantry soldiers to jump out of airplanes, but can’t be in the infantry.
Military women are as confused as anybody by this uneven evolution.
Army surveys show that women soldiers believe combat experience will help their careers, but they want women to be assigned to combat units only if they volunteer. And the majority of women soldiers aren’t personally interested.
“I think that what women want is to do what they are mentally and physically capable of doing,” says Georgia Sadler, a retired Navy captain. “They’re not chomping at the bit to go out with fixed bayonets.”
Still, they resent the contempt that some soldiers in the few all-male combat specialties - like the Rangers - sometimes exhibit toward them.
“I never really felt a difference ‘til I got to Fort Benning, to be honest,” says Sgt. First Class Leticia Westlake, the first female first sergeant of A Company, First Battalion, 11th Training Regiment.
“When I got here, that’s when I felt the difference. I guess because all their basic training and all is strictly male-oriented,” she says.
Like a big train gathering speed, the integration of women in the military had a long, slow start but has now become a juggernaut.
“It’s no longer a debatable issue; it’s a fact of life,” says Capt. Cory Whitehead, commanding officer of the Navy’s Recruit Training Command.
After 1994, only about 2,000 of the Air Force’s 390,000 jobs remained closed to women, and only about 36,000 of the Navy’s approximately 469,000 slots were still closed to females. The ground combat forces in the Marines and the Army, the last redoubts of masculinity, had about 61,000 and 350,000 male-only slots.
Since women are no longer cubby-holed in traditional jobs such as nurses or clerks, questions of why they can’t be in traditional combat roles are only going to grow, says Laura Miller, a Harvard sociologist specializing in military gender issues.
“If you’re going to go in the Army, you might as well go all the way,” says Pfc. Donielle Hairston, who tended bar at a Detroit restaurant before she became a parachute packer at Fort Benning. “You don’t go in the Army and be an Army cosmetologist.
“You can get killed anywhere, especially coming from Detroit,” she says.
Even if only about 30 percent of women in the Army say they would volunteer for combat jobs (compared with 60 percent of men), they represent many of the most promising, hard-charging female prospects, especially in the officer corps.
“Basically the officer corps wants total, complete access. But frankly, if you analyze it, the enlisted people don’t,” says retiring Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., a longtime leader in military issues.
“There’s a big gulf. That’s a big story that doesn’t get told,” Nunn says. “The reason is because the enlisted women know that they’d be the ones in the foxholes.”
The movement has become so powerful within the Pentagon - where top officials closely monitor the progress of women newly entering high-profile jobs like jet fighter or Apache pilot - that it has become a form of political correctness, critics say.
“I think that the greatest problem in the American military today is that … there is no avenue for mid-level to high-level commanders, who see that some of these experiments aren’t working, to articulate that view without seeing their careers destroyed,” says James Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, Marine combat veteran and author.
Webb says he believes the introduction of women into combat units will inevitably undermine the fierce pack-dog loyalty of small fighting groups that goes by the polite name of “unit cohesion.”
“Anybody who has ever been in a relationship knows how much emotion goes into the whole thing, finding somebody, being with somebody, being rejected by somebody,” he says.
Not only are females likely to be under tremendous pressure sexually, as demonstrated in the recent spate of harassment cases, Webb says, but “the second thing you’re seeing is inevitable bias.”
Nunn says that morale will be an issue if women are admitted to direct combat units, and that equal treatment will be crucial.
“Everything has to be the same, the tests, the running, the push-ups, all of it,” Nunn says. If things aren’t equal, “what you will end up doing is demoralizing the men. You will end up having a severe morale problem with the men.”