Front and Center
They were strangers united by a common dream: to be the first American women to pilot fighters, to steer bombers halfway around the world, to command warships, to help keep the peace in faraway war zones, to reach the highest echelons of military command. In the process, they would have to scale the battlements of one of the most male-dominated and testosterone-driven institutions of American society.
The Defense Department in 1993-94 began opening to women many of the 260,000 combat and combat-support jobs previously closed to them. The immediate spurs to this action were the valuable contributions of women in the Persian Gulf war--41,000 servicewomen deployed to the Gulf, making up 8.6 percent of the force--and the stinging revelations of the 1991 Tailhook scandal.
The experiences of some of the women who have assumed the mantle of warrior--and the near-constant drumbeat of sexual scandal that has dogged the Pentagon in recent years--attest to how little the admirals and generals understood or were prepared for a revolution that is rapidly reshaping the face of the American military.
In 1970, women made up only 1.4 percent of active-duty personnel. With the establishment of the all-volunteer force in 1973, however, the military services began actively recruiting women to meet their overall numerical goals. The percentage of women has grown steadily since, reaching 11.8 percent of the active force in 1994 and 13.6 percent today. All told, women account for 193,114 of the 1.42 million Americans in uniform.
At the Oct. 18 dedication of a memorial to honor the service of women in the military--starting with the Revolutionary War--Vice President Al Gore referred to that progression, noting that recent years have seen the first woman on guard duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the first woman (an Air Force lieutenant colonel) to pilot the space shuttle. "Today, women are a vital element of virtually every aspect of our mission around the world," he said.
The services have also come to rely heavily on women to meet the demands of an increasingly high-tech military. As a group, women in the military score higher on mental acuity tests than do men and are credited with helping fill out what Pentagon leaders say is quantifiably the brightest force they have ever fielded. "We might be able to meet our numbers by just recruiting men, but we simply couldn't attract the number of high-quality people the modern Navy demands if we ignored half the recruiting pool," said Vice Adm. Daniel T. Oliver, chief of Naval Personnel.
Still, some women in uniform are finding it slow going. A Pentagon-sponsored study released on Oct. 22 found that a "very low number" of combat-connected jobs have in fact been filled by women.
At the same time, a spate of sexual scandals in recent years has prompted internal disagreements over integration of the sexes and the extent of sexual misconduct in the military. Scandals have ranged from the entry level, where new recruits have been preyed upon by Army drill instructors at an Aberdeen (Md.) base, to the upper reaches of Pentagon command, where at least five flag-rank officers and the Army's most-senior noncommissioned officer have been relieved of command in the past two years for sexual misconduct.
"I think the military is clearly struggling with issues involving sexual harassment and discrimination, and the debate is not over. But neither is the debate on male and female roles over in American society at large," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., a member of the House National Security Military Personnel Subcommittee. "The bottom line is that unless the military includes women as full partners, we're not fielding the force best able to fight and win the high-tech wars of the future."
Critics, however, say the recent sexual scandals indicate that military readiness and discipline are being compromised.
"Military leaders are afraid to complain about all this social engineering because they'll lose their jobs, but all the dire predictions of people who warned against opening combat jobs to women are coming true," said Elaine Donnelly, a former member of the Bush Administration's Presidential Panel on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, which in a split vote in 1992 recommended against opening combat jobs to women.
"We're seeing pregnancies cause readiness problems aboard warships and inside co-ed tents in Bosnia, and the lowering and gender-norming of standards throughout the military," said Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness, a one-person think tank, and opposes allowing women in combat and gays in the military. "All of these new policies ignore the fact that sexuality does indeed matter, and that sexual complications detract from discipline and morale in our military units."
Those concerns are central to the debate over opening many combat units to women. As sociologists have long noted, soldiers in battle do not put themselves in harm's way for Mom, the American flag or apple pie. They fight and die for one another. Would the introduction of temptation tear at the barbed-wire bonds that have historically anchored men in the brutal tempest of war?
When the Pentagon opened nearly all but direct-ground combat jobs to women in 1993-94, many women regarded the decision as a blow for equality. Because promotions have always been closely tied to combat command, the old "risk rule" that barred women from most dangerous jobs was seen by many as a glass ceiling.
Indeed, when F-14 Tomcat pilots Carey Lohrenz, Kara Hultgreen and three other women fighter pilots arrived aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in 1994, they were widely viewed as an antidote to the public relations disaster of the Tailhook scandal, in which off-duty naval aviators sexually assaulted a female helicopter pilot.
Yet, besides rushing to win a public relations race with the Air Force by being the first to field female jet fighter pilots, the Navy did very little to prepare for the melding of women into one of the most macho of military subcultures: the jocks who fly high-performance fighters off pitching carrier decks.
Almost from the beginning, flight instructors protested that in its rush to get the female pilots to the fleet, the service was ignoring warning signs that they were marginal aviators. For their part, the female pilots complained that they were patronized by commanders, ostracized by their squadron mates and given little of the mentoring widely viewed as critical for apprentice pilots. A Navy inspector general's report released last summer lends credence to the charges of both sides. Not in dispute is the fact that in October 1994, Lt. Hultgreen was killed largely because of mistakes she made as she tried to land her F-14 on the Lincoln. Lt. Lohrenz and two other female pilots aboard the carrier were later grounded for poor flying.
"Smooth" is not how the Air Force would describe its experience with the first woman to command a B-52 bomber. Initially, Air Force Academy graduate Lt. Kelly Flinn was a public relations dream. But her story turned into a news media nightmare for the Air Force earlier this year after service officials initiated court-martial proceedings against Flinn for trying to conceal an affair with a married man. She eventually resigned.
But then there's the countervailing example of Air Force Capt. Ellen McKinnon, one of the first of her sex to fly an A-10 attack aircraft, the tank-killer "Wart Hog." She's completed two overseas deployments and has had no difficulty negotiating the sometimes complex lines governing male-female relations in the military. She's not surprised, however, that others have.
"Women do introduce a new dynamic into military units, and this is a learning process for both men and women," McKinnon said. "Initially, men aren't quite sure how to deal with women, and frankly, some of them are probably intimidated. . . . It takes a while for everyone to figure out how to handle change."
The Pentagon is clearly still trying to get its bearings. "Neither we nor any other country has had such a large number of women in uniform without a special corps of their own," said Charles Moskos, a noted military author and sociologist at Northwestern University. "I also don't believe the services ever fully came to grips with the implications of recruiting more and more women over the years."
After being recalled to duty to serve as vice chairwoman of the Army's Senior Review Panel on Sexual Harassment, Brig. Gen. Evelyn P. Foote came to a similar judgment. In the Army's most far-reaching sexual misconduct investigation ever, the panel visited 59 installations around the world and surveyed 30,000 Army respondents. Their conclusion: Sexual harassment and discrimination, including unwanted sexual advances, offensive remarks and unequal job opportunities, exist "throughout the Army, crossing gender, rank and racial lines."
The Oct. 22 Pentagon study--undertaken by the RAND National Defense Institute--said some military commanders were reluctant to allow women to fill jobs for which they were qualified.
In a recent interview, Foote said, "I was always struck by the fact that as the all-volunteer force took root in the 1970s, and the Army began introducing great numbers of women into operational divisions, quite frankly it did almost nothing to prepare the organization for this really fundamental change." While some commanders handled the integration of women very well, she pointed out, others made it clear that women were unwanted. "I'm convinced the reservoir of ill will towards women and the wide disparity in command climates you still find today can be traced back to that lack of preparation," she said.
During his brief tenure as Defense Secretary, the late Les Aspin took the unprecedented step of letting women become members of nearly all units except the special forces and those engaged in ground combat (armor, infantry and artillery). Eighty percent of all military jobs are now open to women.
Since then, the services have been struggling to catch up with the accelerated movement toward a truly gender-integrated military. "In the last few years, the Pentagon has made major strides, not just in terms of opening up new jobs to women, but also in a continuous rollout of new policies and programs involving gender-integration and sexual harassment," said Judith Youngman, chairwoman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. "You could argue that at some point in the last 20 years, the military should have changed its policies in preparation for the smooth integration of women. What we're seeing now, however, is that the services are at a crossroads and struggling to catch up and put the policies in place."
As part of that effort, the Army and Navy have both integrated women into basic training. The Army has begun requiring intensified human relations training for drill instructors. The Navy has begun a seven-year program to convert its warships to accommodate gender-integrated crews (10 percent women) and, by 2002, expects to have 103 surface ships ready for mixed crews. Defense Department task forces are studying the issues of gender-integrated training, fraternization and adultery.
Stephen E. Buyer, R-Ind., chairman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, has been assigned by the chamber's leadership to oversee the Pentagon's studies of gender-integration. In an interview, Buyer said he is determined to force a fundamental and long-overdue assessment of the impact of the mixed-sex military.
"What we're seeing with the military today is a system in search of a proper dynamic. It would be very naive to think you could open up all these new roles and missions to women in the military and not have an impact on the human relations environment," said Buyer, who will hold hearings on women in the military early next year.
"I also plan to look into Les Aspin's political decision to redefine combat and open thousands of jobs to women without any thorough analysis by the military of the impact on readiness," Buyer said. "And to feminists who say we can't roll back the rights of women in the military, my answer is, this is not about women's rights, but rather about fielding the military force best able to fight and win wars."
This summer, when newly minted Navy Ensign Michael Jansen arrived at Great Lakes Naval Training Base, north of Chicago, he was "shocked" to find female recruits in his unit. "But pretty soon you start to develop that strong teamwork, and you see that in some exercises and competitions, the females outdo their male counterparts. At some point, you start to look at that person just as your shipmate. Literally, she's like your sister."
Jansen's experience helps explain why the Navy and Army moved quickly to integrate women into basic training. (The Air Force already had gender-integrated basic training; men and women recruited by the Marine Corps train in separate units, and in the Army, anyone destined for ground combat still trains in all-male units.)
"I talk with ship commanders all the time. They don't want people to work with the opposite gender for the first time aboard their ships," said Rear Adm. Kevin P. Green, commander of the Great Lakes training facility. "They want the crew to be used to the idea that the other person is not a sex object, but rather a sailor, who one day may be pulling their unconscious body out of a burning compartment."
Army Maj. Gen. John A. Van Alstyne, head of the Fort Jackson Training Center in South Carolina, said gender-segregated training would be incongruous in a service in which only roughly 15 percent of the occupational specialties are closed to women.
"There's no mystique about this. Human nature being what it is, if people come up in segregated training systems, they are not going to have confidence in each other's abilities," said Van Alstyne, who added that he enthusiastically supports recent policy shifts that will include a marked increase in the number of female drill instructors. "We need more female drill instructors as role models for both men and women. There's a certain percentage of young men who come into the Army who are not used to working for women. We need to correct that in basic training."
When Army researchers launched a 1994 study of gender-segregated versus gender-integrated training, they identified major concerns about all-female units. Women performed somewhat better than men in classroom tests, for instance, but lacked the aggressiveness of all-male units on the obstacle course. "There was a different group dynamic at work in all-female units. When an all-female unit came through the obstacle course and someone fell off, for instance, the other females would sort of laugh about it. The drill sergeants tended to let them slide," an Army researcher said.
In a striking finding, Army researchers discovered that the women in co-ed units showed markedly improved self-confidence on the obstacle course. Meanwhile, males in co-ed units and those in all-male units scored equally well on the tests.
Interviews with commanders, drill instructors and recruits at both Fort Jackson and Great Lakes indicate that a kind of synergy often develops in gender-integrated units. "We do find that male and female recruits operate a little differently," said Capt. Cornelia De Groot-Whitehead, commander of the Navy's Recruit Training Command. "Women tend to stop and analyze a problem first, while men will gather together quickly as a team and attack it through brute force. When you put that analytical ability and strength together, however, you can form a brilliant team."
There are those who maintain, however, that the introduction of women has led to a "softening" of boot camp. "Many of us who visited these basic-training centers were concerned about the loss of rigor and warrior spirit," said Rep. Buyer. "I was more impressed with the segregated training we saw at [the Marine Corps's] Parris Island, where no one was distracted by issues of sexual misconduct and fraternization."
One of the most contentious issues in boot camp and in the military at large remains the "gender-norming" of physical fitness tests and standards. Because of physiological differences, the services set physical fitness standards according to age and sex. The average woman's heart, for instance, is 25 percent smaller than the average man's. Because males have 50 percent more muscle mass and a longer stride than females, the Army requires that 25-year-old men do more pushups than women of their age (40 versus 16) and run faster (16 minutes and 36 seconds for two miles versus 19 minutes and 36 seconds). In a recent Army survey, only 50 percent of male soldiers said they believe women "pull their own load."
"We probably need to toughen the physical fitness tests and make them more challenging for women, and bring the two standards closer together," Foote said. She noted, however, that both men and women have to meet identical physical requirements associated with specific jobs. "But not every job requires massive upper-body strength. Nor does establishing an absolute physical standard for all men and women in uniform pass the common sense test," she said.
Much of the recent attention on gender-integrated training has focused on sexual relations. Most believe the widespread abuse revealed at Aberdeen--where the chain-of-command was corrupted up to the level of company commander--was an aberration. "If those drills at Aberdeen were looking after each other like they were taught, that never would have happened," said Sgt. Allison Smith, a drill instructor at Fort Jackson. At her post, she noted, the command adheres to a strict "buddy system," in which both recruits and trainers travel only in pairs.
No one denies, however, that trainers occasionally cross the line, or that sexual relations between recruits occur. But among the problems encountered routinely in the often-messy business of turning teenage civilians into soldiers, commanders say the problems of flirtation and misconduct rate as manageable.
"When you encounter a problem with a drill instructor, you send a strong message that such behavior won't be allowed," said Lt. Col. James Helis, who commands a training battalion at Fort Jackson and has had to relieve two drill instructors, one for verbal sexual abuse and one who was eventually court-martialed for having sexual relations with a recruit. As far as sexual relations between recruits, he said, it comes up occasionally but is not a major problem. "We tell them up front that we don't have time for personal relationships here, and the reality is they need to learn to put their social lives aside and work together as soldiers," Helis said. "Face it, when they leave here, all of them are going to gender-integrated units with far less supervision than we provide."
Cohesion and Sexuality
On the average day aboard the state-of-the-art Aegis destroyer U.S.S. Laboon, Lt. Katherine Cunningham, an antisubmarine warfare officer, has plenty to worry about. She worries about the ensign under her command who was late for his watch again. She worries about the family she won't see for six months. Standing watch on the bridge of the Laboon on a moonless night, she worries most about making a mistake that could somehow cost the lives of her 350 shipmates and lose the Navy a $1 billion warship.
In other words, Cunningham has the typical worries of a naval officer at sea.
What she doesn't worry about, Cunningham insists, is how her colleagues react to her as one of the first female antisubmarine warfare officers in the service, or whether someone is going to tell an off-color joke, or if there is shipboard hanky-panky.
"Believe me, I'm far more often distracted by people not paying their bills on time or making the same mistake over and over than I am with onboard relationships," Cunningham said, addressing the key concern many experts have about the integration of women into front-line units."I won't say that relationships never happen. They do. We're human. But we're also professionals, and unless someone's personal life becomes a problem, it doesn't become an issue and I don't get involved," Cunningham said. "Nor do I make a big deal of being a female division officer aboard a warship. I'm just a naval warfare officer who is a woman. It's important that in the time I've been in the Navy, we've come to recognize you can be both of those things."
The services continue to integrate women into front-line forces to an extent that would surprise many in Washington. The signs are everywhere, some subtle and others immediately apparent. They are evident in the blanket partitions hung between male and female cots in co-ed tents in Bosnia, and in the "Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light" pamphlets distributed throughout the Navy that teach a nonthreatening way for anyone to defuse potentially uncomfortable conversations. Many an officer--male or female--has had a ribald joke or story cut short by a simple, "Yellow light, there."
There are also signs of adjustment. Some experts predicted readiness rates and discipline would erode dramatically in gender-integrated combat units. They based their opinion largely on the example of the mixed-gender support ship U.S.S. Arcadia, which was dubbed "The Love Boat" in 1991 because so many of its crew members became pregnant during an extended deployment during the Persian Gulf war. While the most dire predictions have failed to materialize, Navy statistics show that roughly 10 percent of a female crew will become pregnant in a given year. That is a lower pregnancy rate than among civilians in the same age group, but nevertheless, it's a new management challenge to be factored into the complex equation of deploying military forces.
"Pregnancy is literally a part of life, but statistically, it's a relatively small problem in terms of readiness," said Oliver, the Navy's personnel chief, noting that with females accounting for 10 percent of a given crew, only 1 percent of the entire crew will be lost because of pregnancy in a year. "That's not to say it's a small problem for a ship commander who may lose someone he feels is essential. Because this is not something we as an institution had to deal with in the past, we just have to learn to manage around it."
Some lawmakers are much less sanguine about the sexual intimacy that can be read into pregnancy statistics or about the extent of male-female proximity that is becoming routine in military ranks. When Bob Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was touring U.S. facilities in Bosnia, for instance, he was startled to find men and women living side-by-side in 20-person tents.
"I was shocked. To deploy men and women for extended periods and have them live in the same tent, and pretend there's no difference between them, is ludicrous," Livingston said. "That risks destroying the morale of the troops in the field and the spouses back home."
The new realities of a more gender-integrated military have also clashed repeatedly with the moral strictures of the Code of Military Justice. Rooted in the Old Testament, the code condemns adultery, homosexuality and drunkenness, and lists "conduct unbecoming an officer" as grounds for dismissal. Combined with a hodgepodge of service policies on fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel--it's allowed in the Army outside the chain of command, for instance, and strictly forbidden in the Air Force--that combustible mixture of modern romance and military rules has propelled a number of embarrassing cases into the national spotlight. Many analysts wondered, for instance, whether it was really necessary to lose the services of a prospective chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because he had committed adultery eight years earlier during a marital separation.
The Pentagon has ordered a study of whether a more consistent policy can be articulated for fraternization and adultery. But even some supporters of the military's efforts warn that attempts to codify matters of the heart risk robbing commanders of discretion in cases that often beg for it.
"What you have is a historic set of rules on adultery and fraternization that may have been quite appropriate in an almost-all-male military. They are fraying badly around the edges, however, when applied to a military with increasing numbers of women, and an American society whose attitudes on sexuality have changed profoundly," said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., a former Air Force lawyer.
While the debate continues in Washington over the advisability of a truly gender-integrated military, front-line officers say they are getting on with the daily duties. The first females in combat units are now into their second and third overseas deployments. When they returned from service in the Gulf or Bosnia, they quickly tired of references to the "first woman" to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile or face down an armed mob.
Yes, they were women, but more than that, they were warriors.