VFW Magazine — March 2017
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Women In Combat
Heidi Lynn Russell

Headlights blazing, a convoy of Humvees snaked at 2 mph across miles of desert sands. Hunkering with the rest of her battle buddies underneath a hovering escort of Black Hawk helicopters, Army Capt. Laura Marie Westley mentally psyched herself up for an assault on Baghdad.

It was March 2003, the month the United States invaded Iraq — long before it was widely known that women were already attached to combat units. Westley was a Brigade Assistant Adjutant for the Avn. Bde., 3rd Inf. Div., based at Fort Stewart, Ga.

In that moment, as she contemplated the impending invasion, Westley recalled the training she received at West Point. Until now, because she was a woman, she never thought she’d tap the warrior skills she was about to put into practice.

“There were many positions that weren’t open to women back then,” Westley said. “At West Point, the ironic thing was we did a lot of training for infantry, armor and a lot of things we weren’t allowed to do as women.”

“I can remember summertime when we had concentrated military training. We’d train in branches only offered to men. It was a comprehensive training, and it never occurred to me that these positions would open up. I certainly thought it was a waste of time then. I’d think, ‘I’m never going to be an infantry platoon leader.’ ”

But three years ago, the Department of Defense did an about face. Although women like Westley had already been serving valiantly on the front lines, DOD officially opened doors to them that previously were firmly locked shut. A (still pending) 2012 gender discrimination lawsuit from four female service members influenced DOD’s decision. Since then, women across the branches have filled combat roles — quite successfully.

However, women veterans warn there still might be an arduous road ahead to full equality. Uncertainties about the future of the policy now loom, as the new Presidential administration has signaled it might upend what women say has been significant progress. However, they are steadfast that they made valid contributions to the country’s defense.

“The fact that there’s even chatter about reversing the policy is disgusting and disrespectful and a slap in the face for all the hard work women have done,” said Westley, who today is an author and playwright. Her memoir and comedy play, both called, “War Virgin,” are about her experience in the military.

“I’m terrified of the sentiments that we have to be afraid women won’t have certain opportunities again.”

STRIDES AND SETBACKS

During the past three years, has the climate changed across the Armed Forces for women? To answer that question, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) launched a national survey of about 1,300 women: veterans, active duty and National Guard/Reserve troops in October 2016. Participants were asked to identify the top three challenges they face, both personally and as a community. The top-rated community challenge was gender bias, and it was the second-ranked top personal challenge.

Dr. Ellen Haring is a former Army colonel who is one of the plaintiffs in the gender discrimination lawsuit. She conducted the survey on behalf of SWAN. As someone who battled for gender equality during her 30-year Army career, Haring said it’s disingenuous to think the Pentagon’s policy change is simply a formality — that it is a rubber stamp approval to gender equality roles that were already in place.

“There are people who say it’s not that big of a change,” she said. “Well, women have been pushed into the infantry as interpreters and public affairs officers for years, yes, but they still were not allowed to be integrated. It’s true they were there, but they were not allowed to serve as an actual combat arms soldier.”

Others say they feel their male peers have accepted them as equals, even if old stereotypes linger among those of older generations. But they also acknowledge that change does not occur overnight.

Army Capt. Elyse Ping Medvigy is an executive officer at the Special Warfare Education Group in the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C.

When she was first commissioned after graduating from West Point in 2012, women just began filling roles in field artillery, “but it was severely restricted,” she said. “I was only allowed to serve in fires brigades rather than cannon units, which meant only a handful of posts were available to me.”

She deployed to Camp Casey in Korea in 2013, and on arriving, was told that women “were only being kept at the brigade level in administrative roles. We were not allowed down at the line units.” The experience was disheartening, Medvigy said, because she was told at West Point that as a second lieutenant, she would become a platoon leader.

“I was shocked and angry,” she said. “I decided to work my butt off until we got new leadership in. And he said, ‘Let’s give her a shot.’ ” She became a rocket platoon leader with 1st Bn., 38th Field Artillery Regt., 210th Fires Bde., 2nd Inf. Div., because of that change in commander.

Stories like Medvigy’s were more common before the policy came about three years ago. Nevertheless, even since then, the armed forces branches have not been consistent in their implementation, Haring said. For example, the Secretary of Defense implemented an extensive, uniformed training for “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” for all branches. But gender-equality training has been handled according to how each branch sees fit, she said. This past summer, Haring and the Women in International Security organization wrote a women’s integration handbook, with the Army’s participation. Nevertheless, the Department of Defense did not release anything like it to the other branches, she said. The resulting mish-mash means that in some units women are given a fair shot, while in others, they are easily dismissed.

THE DOUBLE-STANDARD DILEMMA

A common psychological challenge among women combat veterans is that they don’t want men to think they expect a “double standard,” said Dr. A.J. Marsden, a former Army sergeant and surgical nurse. While working on her master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, she counseled women combat veterans at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, from 2009 to 2010, who were suffering from PTSD.

As someone who served in the Army from 1998 to 2006, Marsden said she experienced first-hand the sexism that plagues many women in the services. Among her hospital patients, she observed that they were not only suffering from post-combat stress, but also self-doubt. The need to be considered equals weighed on them.

“Women can be their own worst enemies,” Marsden said. “I would hear things like, ‘I’m not sure I did the right thing … whether my leaders think I did the right thing.’ I think there’s that ‘extra something’ where you feel you have to prove yourself. These are the first women in combat situations. It’s like the first time women got to vote. They feel they’re making decisions and paving the future for other women in the military. They want to do it right so other women can follow in their footsteps.”

For their part, Westley and Medvigy are adamant that they and other women have never wanted standards compromised so they could be in combat roles.

“The best of us certainly don’t want that,” Medvigy said. “We want women to be responsible and meet the standard. I can attest for women in the artillery. They wanted to be treated equally.” She adds that one stereotype she would like to debunk is that women can’t handle their emotions in high-stress combat situations.

“I would hear guys say that they thought we’d freeze up when bullets started flying,” she said. “And I just didn’t see that at all. Of course, it depends on the person, but I’ve never seen a woman cry, especially in combat. But you also see the toughest infantry guy not be able to handle it.”

TRUMP TREPIDATION

Meanwhile, women agree that the Trump administration’s intentions with the policy has set them on edge.

Nancy Duff Campbell is Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center, which supports Haring and other plaintiffs in the 2012 lawsuit filed by the ACLU. She advises women in the services to take a wait-and-see approach before panicking that the policy will be reversed.

“One thing that (Donald Trump) has shown us is, there are a number of issues where, as he gathers more information, he understands his first instincts weren’t the right ones,” Duff Campbell said. “Another consideration is that there are a lot of things going on in the military with higher priority than those who are thinking about this issue.”

Even at that, the 2012 lawsuit is still pending in California, and the judge in the case has retained jurisdiction, she added. If the new presidential administration reverses the policy, it would be grounds to activate the lawsuit based on a Constitutional challenge.

“That’s the most likely way to halt any such change,” she said.

Medvigy said, “It would be extremely disheartening and comical if they reverse it, because we already are serving in combat. This is already happening and has been happening. To take them out of combat now would absolutely be a mistake.”

I THINK THERE’S THAT ‘EXTRA SOMETHING’ WHERE YOU FEEL YOU HAVE TO PROVE YOURSELF. THESE ARE THE FIRST WOMEN IN COMBAT SITUATIONS. IT’S LIKE THE FIRST TIME WOMEN GOT TO VOTE. THEY FEEL THEY’RE MAKING DECISIONS AND PAVING THE FUTURE FOR OTHER WOMEN IN THE MILITARY. THEY WANT TO DO IT RIGHT SO OTHER WOMEN CAN FOLLOW IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS.

DR. A.J. MARSDEN, FORMER ARMY SERGEANT AND SURGICAL NURSE

U. S. Army Capt. Elyse Ping Medvigy conducts a call for fire during artillery training near Kandahar Airfield, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2014. She was a fire support officer with D Co., 1st Bn., 12th Inf. Regt., 4th BCT, 4th Inf. Div.
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