Rankling the Brass

July 1996

Rankling the Brass

By Anne Laurent

I've always had it totally in perspective that this is an old boys' treehouse and they've been rankled from the day I got here," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., of her relationship with the military establishment on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon.

"Rankled" may be too mild a term. There's evidence lawmakers hated the very sight of Schroeder when she joined the House Armed Services Committee, now the National Security Committee, in 1973. Elected on an anti-Vietnam War platform in 1972, Schroeder immediately mounted a fight for an Armed Services seat. She won it, but Chairman Edward Hebert, D-La., was so angry at being forced to accept both a woman and Rep. Ron Dellums, an African American, on his panel that he made Schroeder and Dellums share a single committee room chair for two years.

"He said that neither of us was worth more than half a chair. And my colleagues let it happen," Schroeder recalls.

Dellums related the story on the House floor recently during a lull in the debate on the 1997 Defense authorization bill. "We sat cheek-to-cheek, hip-to-hip, and it took great dignity on the part of both of us to do this. We leaned into each other, recognizing what was being said to us by this humiliating effort.

"But we turned to each other and we said...let us not give these people the luxury of thinking that they got to us."

Schroeder has bad news for those who hope her retirement will mean a return to the old ways: "If you really think when I'm gone you can go back, I don't think so. The world has changed and will not accommodate them going backward."

Backward for Pat Schroeder would be a return to the days of second-class status for female soldiers, seamen and airmen, Tailhook, unchallenged witch-hunting for homosexual service members, little concern for military spouses and no attention to the needs of military families. She shone the spotlight on these issues and doing so mostly won her unending enmity among many military members, families and their supporters.

"I totally understand that when you go to crack a culture, they come to crack you," Schroeder says. What surprises and saddens her isn't the vehemence of the counterattack, but the frustrating slowness and many setbacks involved in making change in the military. "Even yesterday in Armed Services in our mark-up, we didn't spend any time on the weapons systems or the strategy. Most of the time was spent on what magazines can they read and if they're HIV positive, throw them out. They all debate and everybody screams, 'We ought to study women again.' Women in the military must feel like they're high school science projects they're studied so much.

Schroeder calls debates such as the one over women serving in combat, "a joke. Could somebody tell me what combat is? All this combat stuff is World War I trench thinking. A combat zone is anywhere a missile can hit and a missile can hit anywhere. This wonderful, chivalrous notion about how we are protecting women is absolute bunkum. You fence off the creme de la creme jobs and say, 'Women can't do this,' in the name of protecting you from something.

Schroeder's opponents argue her positions, especially the one on women in combat, are far too simplistic. Opening combat positions to women would require women to meet higher physical standards that men now meet, critics contend. Because few women could meet those standards, combat equality could have the unintended effect of reducing the number of women in the force. Then there is pregnancy. During the Persian Gulf war, some Army units reported that as many as 30 percent of their female soldiers got pregnant between the day they were called up and the start of the ground war. The number of men who tried to avoid deployment was statistically negligible. Finally, critics point to surveys showing that, while the majority of women in uniform want combat positions opened to capable women, they, themselves, don't want those posts.

Schroeder remains discouraged about military culture, despite President Bill Clinton's appointment of new Defense Department civilian leaders and the rise of a new generation of more open-minded officers. As evidence both of progress and the distance to be traveled, Schroeder points to the case of a Navy admiral deposed last year in the wake of a rape case involving three U.S. service members and a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl. "Look at Adm. [Richard] Macke. Four star, CINCPAC, he has Okinawa under his command where thousands of people are in the streets every day protesting the rape. Adm. Macke did not say in the gym to his friends, or quietly, he says to the press, 'Why did these guys rape her, they could have gone out and hired women?' Hullo? How could he totally have missed it? This is a culture we have not cracked yet, we may not live long enough to crack it."

As she prepares to leave Congress, Schroeder doesn't regret her contentious relations with the military. She says she understands. "They have come up in a culture where once you have rank, everybody salutes you. I understand why that's important, but I also understand why it is quadruply difficult for them to have a woman say to them, 'Sir, I don't agree with that.'"

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