Last week, I read one of those books that is impossible to put down. I read it—devoured it is more like it—in about a night-and-a-half of reading instead of sleeping. That’s something I don’t do these days, but I had to finish it.
It was weirdly familiar and hard to read, and in many ways it resonated. It’s called After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey, and it was written by Dan Sheehan, a fellow Cobra pilot. It’s—sort of—a recall/analysis of his time in Iraq in the early days of OIF and a discussion of the aftermath. I haven’t flown since 2010, but while reading his book, it felt like yesterday. I could smell the cockpit like the blades had just stopped turning, could feel the switches and gauges under my fingertips again, and remember well the post-mission stupor exacerbated by the dull, strong whomp-whomp of the blades echoing up my back.
Dan is an acquaintance; we both served as instructors at the Fleet Replacement Squadron right before we each left active duty. I don’t know him incredibly well, but he’s got a stellar reputation and was exceedingly competent. But that’s not why I hope people read his book.
I hope people read it because what he writes about is important. Yes, flying is interesting, and he describes what that’s like so expertly and eloquently that it made me physically miss it (as if I didn’t miss it enough already). So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fly and fight a Cobra, he’ll tell you. But the beauty in this book—if I dare use that word to describe the critical part of his story—is his ability and willingness to stand up and put a face to what so many veterans have experienced and continue to experience.
It’s a book that may not get a huge following, as it’s kind of in its own category. But if it doesn’t get widely read, then it’s a crying shame. Despite the fact that we’ve been at war for over a decade, less than 1% of Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan (yet many of those endured multiple deployments), and I find myself repeatedly surprised by how few citizens have a real awareness of just what has been happening since 2001. I want people to read Dan’s book, both those who have served and those who have not. Those who have might see traces of themselves in his story, and those who have not served need the perspective. Thank you, Shoe. Keep writing.
This Sunday, 28 October, the Marine Corps Marathon will once again be closing down the streets of Washington, D.C. Since the MCM began in 1976 it has grown immensely, and over 43,000 runners are registered for the three main events of the weekend.
I’ve run it off-and-on since 1995, between deployments, PCSs, and the births of my children, and have seen it grow from a smaller, simpler race to the massive event that it is today. Without fail, it always feels amazing to be able to run the marathon in the heart of the beautiful city that D.C. can be, in the middle of fall, around all of the monuments, and surrounded by spectators and friends. Some things about the MCM have not changed over time: it is still inspiring, it is still entertaining (standing at the start in 2009 with three other current/former Marine Corps helicopter pilots made the Osprey fly-over incredibly fun), and it still possesses the ability to humble me.
The MCM has grown into a mini-reunion of sorts, as those I’ve served with and known over the years fly in town for the run, or sign up for it while stationed here. I’ve run it on warm, sunny days and on cold, rainy ones, and I’ve run it as a healthy 20-year-old who thought nothing of it and as a 36-year-old with three kids (who thought quite a bit). I have beaten Al Gore and Oprah Winfrey, and have been beaten by Kermit the Frog, Elvis, and a man with a pot-belly wearing a shirt that read “I hydrated with beer” on the back. Humorous but humbling.
Fittingly, one aspect of the MCM that has changed is the number and type of groups running for something. The striking difference about the runners of the MCM is how many are military and how many are running for other servicemembers, whether in memory of friends or family lost over the past decade or in honor of those wounded or currently serving. No other race I’ve run has that kind of presence. And the level of commitment, the depth of loss, and the amount of respect is far more humbling than anything I feel physically over the distance. While there are times that I feel as if most of this country has forgotten that we are and have been a nation at war for 11 years, at the MCM the opposite is true. From groups like USNA’s Run to Honor and the Travis Manion Foundation to the hundreds (thousands?) of people running with a friend’s name on their shirt, Washington, D.C. looks amazing every year on the last Sunday in October.
I will be running again this weekend as part of Team Beav, a group started by Katy Kerch in 2006 in honor of her brother and my squadron-mate, Major Gerald Bloomfield (“Beav”). We lost Beav and Major Michael Martino on November 2, 2005, when their Cobra was shot down in Iraq. Team Beav has grown over the years, and the list of names on the back of our shirts has grown as well. Katy is an indefatigable woman who has motivated runners and non-runners alike to run the MCM in memory of Beav, raising money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund along the way.
So if you’re in town and you are running the marathon, I hope you enjoy it. And if you are in the area but not running, come out to watch. Rain, shine, or tropical-storm-force winds, the crowds and the energy level will be high. If you feel as though you have lost faith in America and in her citizens, being part of the MCM on race morning can change that, if only for a few hours.
For those we have lost, I miss you, I remember you, and I will be thinking of you on Sunday morning. Semper Fi.
Nearly twenty years ago, I first read the Qualifications of a Naval Officer, which was (at the time, apparently with a bit of inaccuracy) attributed to John Paul Jones.* As an 18-year-old, I found it interesting, cumbersome, romantic, and very hard to say quickly while “peas and carrots” was being shouted in my ear.
“It is by no means enough that an officer of the navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though, at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder. In one word, every commander should keep constantly before him the great truth, that to be well obeyed, he must be perfectly esteemed.”
(from USNA’s Reef Points)
Recently I find myself thinking about it again…specifically, the middle of that third sentence, the part about refined manners and punctilious courtesy.
Election season grinds away, and dialogue in the media—especially on political matters—has (as usual) taken on ever-increasingly sharp and divisive tones. Print and online debate on many topics has begun to echo that trend. The internet, with comment forums and chat rooms that feature the safety of anonymity and the allure of a virtual open mike, feeds the beast. The most polite, civil article can attract an array of mean-spirited comments, with personal attacks leading the charge regardless of topic. And anyone who has taken a glance at the comments following news articles can attest to how rampant this form of “discussion” has become, where personal attacks and scornful dismissals stand in for real arguments and are considered actual debate. An entire area of research on the internet and so-called internet “trolls” studies why people act and speak to others this way and what it all means.
So what does this have to do with the naval services and the qualifications of a Naval Officer? The dismissive, disrespectful tone has bled over into apolitical professional discussions within the military, and has become a largely acceptable way to argue a point on military topics both in internet forums and journal commentary.
Way back in July, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Robert J. Samuelson titled “Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality?” tackling polarized discourse. While his writing largely addressed politics, his thoughts transfer well to professional and personal communication in general. One quote in particular stood out (I tried to take the liberal vs. conservative slant out to focus primarily on more general discourse):
“ Our national debates now transcend disputes over this or that spending program or tax and have become—in the minds of the combatants—a climactic struggle for the nature and soul of America…But in today’s politically poisoned climate, righteousness is at a premium and historical reality at a discount. Each side…behaves as if it has a monopoly on historical truth. The fear that the existence of their version of America is threatened sows discord and explains why love of country has become a double-edged sword, dividing us when it might unite.”
He’s got a good point. It’s easy to “win” an argument by painting others in broad, dismissive, and scornful strokes, and it’s more and more acceptable to try to do so in everyday discourse. But calling someone moronic, ignorant, or dangerous does not make them moronic, ignorant, or dangerous…and it has an alienating and cooling effect on true, meaningful debate. It has the added danger of the boy crying “wolf”: comparing someone to Hitler or using dramatic language reduces the power of those very words. And maybe one day we’ll need them.
It also does not make America—or the Navy and Marine Corps—better. People stop listening when they hear such a tone, so we win over no one and create echo chambers populated by those who think exactly like us. Instead of actually confronting problems and creating solutions, this further reinforces existing problems.
Nowhere is this truer than in the services, where we all start from a similar vantage point: many of us signed up because we feel a duty or calling to serve, we think it’s important, and we believe in this country with its faults and failures. Mutual respect, professional dialogue, and openness to true debate only strengthen the discussion. Not a single soul alive has a monopoly on intelligence and truth, so it’s a good thing that we all have different opinions and experiences, because the problems that we face as a nation and as a military will take all kinds of minds to confront and overcome.
It’s important to encourage debate and to discuss topics that cause concern, especially in today’s complex climate. But if the process of doing just that alienates everyone else, we’re defeated before we begin.
Back to John Paul Jones/Augustus C. Buell: he mentioned manners and courtesy right up there with honor. The services should not become as divided and polarized as the nation is, and given the tasks ahead of us for the foreseeable future, we cannot afford to be. We need voices out there…but we need them to be smart, honest, and respectful or they will get lost in the noise.
* The quotation actually comes from Augustus C. Buell (1900), who believed that this quote reflected was what John Paul Jones would have said, as later copies of Reef Points corrected.
Eleven years have passed since the morning when everything changed for an entire nation at once. Sometimes it feels like yesterday; sometimes it feels like decades ago. As with Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy, 11 September 2001 is the defining moment of generations. My children are growing up in a country that has been at war since long before they were born, and their America will always be post-September 11. But for those of us serving then and now, that morning carries a particularly cruel weight of sadness and marks a turning point where the America we knew ceased to exist.
On September 11, 2001, I was a 1stLt at the Cobra Fleet Replacement Squadron on Camp Pendleton and was scheduled that morning for my final checkride—the flight that would send me on my way down the road to the fleet. Needless to say, the flight didn’t happen that day (or that week), but I eventually made my way to the fleet. Deployment cycles immediately started accelerating and changing, and training back at Camp Pendleton took on a whole new meaning. The peacetime military many had joined no longer existed. One of our classmates from school, Darin Pontell, was killed that morning in the Pentagon, many of us knew others who had been killed on that clear blue day, and abruptly we were gearing up for war. Suddenly everything we had learned and the commitments we’d made became very, very real and sobering. Ten-feet-tall-and-bulletproof ceased to exist, and that made us mad…and ready.
As we remember where we were and what we saw, felt, and thought eleven years ago, when what we believed we knew about the world changed drastically on one strikingly beautiful morning, one thought becomes clear. As a nation, and within the services, there is much more to unite us than to divide us. America is worth the struggle, faults and all, and I am incredibly lucky to be able to serve in our military alongside of many of the most phenomenal people I’ve had the fortune to meet.
Through the years following that morning, and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have kept and still keep alive the memory of those we have lost. Organizations like the Injured Marines Semper Fi Fund, the USNA Run to Honor, smaller nonprofits like Team Beav and the Travis Manion Foundation, and innumerable scholarships and events all keep their memories alive, and remind us of what we must fight for.
To those who have served before, and to those still serving today, thank you. I feel honored to follow in your footsteps, and to serve among you. To those who have lost their lives or have been wounded hunting down people and organizations who would hurt America, thank you. We remember. Year after year, we still remember; we will always remember. We will never forget.
The uniform that we wear is sacrosanct. It is much more than the materials that compose it. We wear it carefully, with the understanding that we are fortunate to wear it, and with the recognition that it carries the weight of the sacrifices of past, present, and future generations. We wear it with the realization that once we don it, we stand for something above and beyond ourselves. Wearing the uniform, we represent a specific set of values and ideals to Americans. The uniform is a symbol of the defense of freedom, of strength, and of the amazing concept of the United States of America.
But sometimes pride in the uniform clashes with another type of pride.
On Saturday, July 21, San Diego held its annual gay pride parade. In past years, military members have marched in the parade wearing civilian clothes or military t-shirts.
This year, the event captured national attention due to the Pentagon-sanctioned participation of active duty military members marching in uniform. Department of Defense regulations prohibit servicemembers from wearing the uniform while participating in political activities, supporting, promoting, or furthering a political cause, or participating in any activity or behavior that might bring discredit upon the military or imply military endorsement. Despite existing regulations, however, DoD made a one-time allowance for the San Diego parade.
DoD officials stated that they allowed military members to wear their uniforms in the parade because “organizers had encouraged military personnel to march in their uniform and the event was getting national attention” (CBS news article, 21 July 2012). Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed, and servicemembers can serve openly. But should they be allowed to march in uniform in parades—even if for one day only—to show their pride and support for finally serving openly?
Back in May, two airmen from the Washington National Guard were reprimanded for being photographed while breastfeeding in uniform. A spokesman pointed out that breastfeeding in uniform wasn’t a concern. The problem was that the two airmen purposely posed for pictures in uniform for a breastfeeding support group’s campaign for Breastfeeding Awareness Month, violating the Air Force’s prohibition on using the uniform to “advance the cause of an outside organization” (Air Force Times article, 1 June 2012). From the article: “‘The uniform was misused. That’s against regulations,’ [Captain Keith] Kosik said. ‘I want to be very, very clear about this. Our issue is not, nor has it ever been, about breastfeeding. It has to do with honoring the uniform and making sure it’s not misused. I can’t wear my uniform to a political rally, to try to sell you something or push an ideology. That was our point of contention.’”
And it’s the right point to make. A servicemember’s support of breastfeeding or homosexuality is not the issue. Supporting any of the many noble yet politicized causes that blanket the American landscape is not the issue. Pride in the uniform and all it stands for is the point. No matter what our personal beliefs are on breastfeeding or homosexuality, using the uniform to express an opinion to the greater public about military support (or not) for specific causes is against the rules, and for a very good reason.
We honor the uniform and the many who have proudly worn it before us by recognizing that it stands for much more than any one of us. No matter how strongly we each feel about individual causes, pride in the uniform should trump all.
The military cannot take sides in any political cause, and in the charged environment we operate in today, many causes become highly politicized. These two are no different. When DoD granted an exception for the pride parade, it stepped onto a slippery slope. The military must remain above the fray and above reproach.
Pride in oneself and pride in one’s service is important. But pride in what we all stand for in uniform trumps the rest.
The week after my squadron returned from what was my first deployment, we held an officers’ meeting in the Ready Room. At the meeting’s close, our XO stood up and asked the younger pilots to stay behind. The Ready Room emptied out and eventually only a dozen of us first lieutenants and captains were left. The XO shut the door, then saw me and kicked me out too. He needed to speak to us because the squadron had to supply a pilot to be a Forward Air Controller for an infantry battalion, but he didn’t want me there because I wasn’t allowed to be a FAC with an infantry unit.
No one really wanted the FAC tour just yet, since we’d just finished our first deployment as new pilots and had been busting our butts learning how to fly and fight our aircraft. The war in Afghanistan was new, we were young and unscathed, and we were chomping at the bit to do our jobs. But we needed to send a pilot to the battalion, and as a woman, I was unqualified.
After nearly a year in the squadron, I was just another pilot among many. But suddenly I became a female pilot, and was set apart. And regardless of personal qualifications, my presence immediately limited the command’s options.*
Why keep a capable, qualified pilot from serving as a FAC with an infantry unit? Why restrict any qualified individual based on assumptions about his or her gender? This debate has been going for years, and the same arguments against lifting the restriction on women in combat keep echoing, but after a decade of war, those arguments sound empty given the reality on the ground and in the air.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, women have repeatedly proven that they can handle the physical and mental stresses of combat in many different forms. Nearly 300,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a range of jobs unmatched in recent history. They have participated in combat operations at historical rates. Women can do the job, and women are doing the job, right alongside men who have long since stopped seeing them as women, and instead simply see them as fellow Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, and Sailors. My own experiences overseas and those of many of my generation—male and female—have rendered the combat restriction obsolete, reinforcing that gender does not matter if one can do the job…it’s about ability.
Debates about the legal restriction on women in combat units are usually accompanied by arguments about physical strength and biological differences, the nature of combat versus the nature of men and women, and the effect women will have on men and, therefore, on unit cohesion and effectiveness. But the past decade has offered up years that counter these assumptions, showing that we have systematically underestimated our Marines and Sailors and their abilities.
Women are already carrying the same loads that men are, in training and in theater (has anyone seen the pictures accompanying General Amos’ road show brief?). From The Basic School to Iraq and Afghanistan, we all carry and wear lots of gear. But to erase lingering doubts about capabilities, set one physical standard for combat units and stick to it. Maybe only a few women will make the cut, but we may see less 130-lb, video-game-playing 19-year-old men, too. If someone is physically qualified, they should not be restricted based on gender. Period.
The nature of combat vs. the nature of gender:
Passive women, aggressive men, nurturing mothers, protective fathers…these are stereotypes that do not cover all—or arguably even many—people. Most people, male or female, are not suited for the violence of combat (or for any military service, for that matter). But some are. There are female Marines I’d follow anywhere and male Marines I wouldn’t. We all know those who don’t fit the gender “mold.” Let ability be the deciding factor.
Showers and toilets:
Everybody stinks after awhile. Water bottles, solar showers, wet wipe baths. Not pretty, but I did it. Everyone does it. As for privacy and bathrooms, we all adapt and figure out how to make things work. If you have enough gear on, nobody can see anything, anyway. One of our bathrooms in Iraq was the rusted hulk in the picture at the top. Worked like a champ if timed right. If you want more details, I’m happy to provide. Bottom line, women make do, just like men do.
The effect of women on men and the breakdown of unit cohesion:
Claiming that men are “hard-wired” to compete for women insults men and women alike. It insults our integrity, intelligence, dedication and professionalism, and places the responsibility for handling this “natural” occurrence squarely on the shoulders of women. The usual argument is that men can’t handle themselves around women, so women should not be allowed. Whatever happened to leadership, professionalism, and taking responsibility for one’s actions? And as women and men train together, gender can disappear, and then we are all simply what we wanted to be to begin with: Marines. Not male Marines, not female Marines, but Marines. If you see someone every day and you know that person can do the job, there’s no distraction.
Our Marines and Sailors are not so poorly trained or simplistic that the presence of someone who looks different will destroy a unit from the inside. Women—just like men—have heart, soul, and incredible motivation, and join the Marines to be a Marine: to be challenged, to serve with the best, and to be part of something great. Claiming that the presence of women will destroy a unit underestimates the intelligence, dedication and professionalism of our military, and—above all else—shows ignorance of what our military does on a daily basis.
Look at our forces today. Women have been serving and fighting alongside men in Iraq and Afghanistan all along, and the sky hasn’t fallen. The fears have not materialized. Unit cohesion has not collapsed, the mission is being accomplished, and men and women are serving and sacrificing side-by-side. As Marines. Ask all four Wings or the Marine Logistics Groups. The Divisions are no different: find an infantry battalion without women “attached” in theater. By all measurable standards of readiness, we have co-ed units deployed today capable of successfully performing the most complex missions. If the presence of women will break down cohesion, causing readiness to plummet and units to fail, where are these failing units? Where is the mission failure?
Keeping the legal restriction in place reinforces and perpetuates the assumption that women cannot fight as well as men and cannot protect themselves. It draws lines between Marines that don’t need to be there. In deployed units, this can have highly negative consequences and can poison units from within, something I have experienced firsthand.
This restriction keeps women from serving in all capacities based on what is assumed about the abilities and natures of all women and all men. Ostensibly, these regulations protect vulnerable women from the dangers of combat while keeping men from being distracted—or endangered—in combat by a woman (whether protecting her or picking up her slack). This generalizes all women and their capabilities while denying women the opportunity to fully answer the call to serve. Just like men, women are capable of great ambition and of yearning to belong to something bigger than ourselves, to serve and sacrifice. Isn’t that why we all—no matter the gender—sign up?
It’s time to finish this debate and do what’s right. Putting up barriers between men and women based on generalized assumptions distracts those serving and wastes time and energy. We should let the best person have the job, regardless of what’s between their legs. To many of those fighting the war today, it’s a non-issue. They are already serving together, and have been for years.
General Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, recently sent a letter to the senior leadership, addressing the ongoing discussion on women in combat. He described the research that the Marine Corps is conducting on the topic and closed the discussion with, “Our end state is a thorough, credible, and defensible Service position that responds to our civilian leadership while keeping faith with our Marines, in garrison and in combat.” Let’s keep faith with all Marines. Open up all MOSs to everyone, keep the standards high, and do not raise invisible barriers. Let Marines be Marines, and the rest can follow.
*as for the FAC tour, a friend took it, and I never felt right about it.
There’s a generation gap in our military today. It happens every 20 years or so, of course, as members of younger generations enter the military in greater numbers and older generations retire. Signs include dissonance between the norms and priorities of older, senior leaders and those of younger, junior servicemembers. Today, for example, senior leaders wonder why junior servicemembers are selfish and act entitled, while younger men and women ask why those in leadership positions have lost perspective and don’t understand problems facing younger generations.
Current events and comments support this growing disconnect, as Baby Boomers fill senior leadership positions and retire while Millennials (those born after approximately 1979-1980) flood the lower and middle ranks.
A November 2010 Boston Globe article addressed the generation gap exhibited in both the implementation of DADT and its much-later repeal (1 Nov 2010, “A Generation Gap on ‘Don’t Ask’ Policy,” AP). It’s a quick read, stating what many people currently serving know: to the majority of Generation X and Millennial servicemembers, the sexual preferences of those we serve with just aren’t that big of a deal. And most believed it wouldn’t affect morale or unit readiness negatively. Older servicemembers, however, had/have a harder time with the idea of homosexuals serving in the military. The survey results are posted here.
I saw the generation gap both on active duty and as a reservist. When flying with older pilots, both as a student and later as an instructor, I consistently heard, “Well, I’ve never flown with a woman before.” It happened so often that we would joke about it in the squadron, and I came up with a set of one-liner responses (“Huh, is that right, sir?” gets old). But I never heard it from those my age or younger. Not once. To younger Marines, it didn’t matter. Who cared? They’d worked with women before, and it just wasn’t important. Later, while pregnant for my oldest, I flew regularly, and peers and younger pilots thought that flying with a pregnant pilot was either interesting or a non-event, usually seeing it as a chance to get three people in a Cobra at once and make jokes on flight grading sheets like “both of you are now DACM qualified.” But I never heard it called wrong, disgusting, or unsuitable for military service until I wrote about flying while pregnant on this forum.
Which brings up my next point: the Naval Institute’s efforts to engage and attract junior members. Two weeks ago, USNI sent a letter to members stating that the #1 job this year is to “engage young professionals and groom them to pick up the baton for the next generation.” On the USNI website, under “Where We’re Headed,” Objective #3 states that USNI must “increase, broaden, and engage our membership.” It specifically cites a need to “bring more active duty personnel…into the fold” and that “we must pass down USNI’s historical treasures to the next generation. They must be present for that to happen.” They are spot on, and meeting this objective is key to keeping communication lines open between generations so that we can continue to learn and improve the force. Asking around at work and among Navy/Marine Corps friends, I found that while some were familiar with USNI and its work, the majority were not. Of those that were, they generally considered it either out of touch with current servicemembers or an organization catering to retired personnel.
My point? There is a growing generation gap in the military (and the larger American culture), and we need to address it. It happens about every 20 years and it can be transformative. Baby Boomers caused major changes to how America views its wars, wartime leaders, and politicians, and, with Vietnam burned upon the collective consciousness, they brought about broad policy changes to ensure (as much as possible) that we do not find ourselves committed to another war that we either can’t or won’t win. Two decades later, Generation X began entering the military after being raised by single parents and in dual-income households at a higher rate than previous generations. Having grown up with the Feminist Movement, Generation X women were among the first to serve on combat ships and aircraft, and young men and women of this generation joined a military that largely allowed them to serve together.
Millennials are establishing themselves as the most tolerant generation on record. They are about 50% larger than Generation X, nearly as numerous as Baby Boomers. As a result of the cultural swings of the 80s and 90s, Millennials have different priorities, norms, and work/life expectations than Baby Boomers or even Generation X. Generation X and Millennials grew up in an America where women could fly and serve on nearly any aircraft or ship; where homosexuality was not something to hide or punish; where women began to graduate from college at higher rates than men; where their parents both worked full-time; and where (I’m going to use the “D” word here) diversity among Americans reached new heights.
With a looming budget crisis and after over a decade of conflict, we as a military must not alienate quality members of younger generations. Career paths, retention policies, and combat restrictions that worked 20 years ago may not work well now to attract and keep the best and brightest of younger generations. What constitutes combat has changed, our enemies have changed, and the servicemen and -women who fight our wars have changed. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the changing demographics of the family, especially the military family. The generation gap has forever altered the idea of what a family is and how it works. Considering that family reasons are the top ones given by those leaving the Navy and Marine Corps, it’s something we must pay attention to.
Some last thoughts on the generation gap and our need to ensure the services attract the best women and men 10, 20, 30 years from now:
–We need to keep an open mind when hearing complaints from other generations. It takes courage to speak up, and those doing so often don’t unless they feel it is worth the risk.
–We need to look closely at the demographics and what they tell us. Women comprise more than half of all college graduates. In stark contrast with the white-male majority in the military, the majority of all births in America are now minorities. The family consisting of a male breadwinner with a supportive wife and kids at home is a small and shrinking minority among families, most of which are headed by dual-income couples. Millennials and Generation Xers believe family is more important than work. These trends are also continuing to grow; this isn’t a blip on the social radar.
–As college degrees become more common and earning one means less competitively, more people seek graduate degrees to stand out. The average military career path makes it hard to fit a college or graduate degree in, and while some manage to do it, we need to look at ways to allow continuing education—which should be a priority—for more servicemembers.
–We must continue to monitor the retention numbers and pay close attention to the reasons given by those leaving at the 6-10 year marks; family time and the inability to achieve a balance between a military career and the demands of a family top the list of reasons why people leave the service.
–None of us are unbiased. I am a product of my experiences, as is every one of us, and those experiences are valid and deserve respect. Dismissing ideas from junior servicemembers because they are different is going to hurt us more in the long run. A decade, two decades from now, this military will be led by those midgrade and junior officers and enlisted members, and we need to do the best we can to set them up for success in every form.
Either way, one day the younger generation will have the reins, and we owe it to ourselves and them to get more creative now.
Of course they aren’t. Besides our own individual experiences and those of peers, superiors, and subordinates, the numbers overwhelmingly agree. 44% of active duty servicemembers have children. Breaking it down by rank shows that the more senior the member, the more likely they are to have children. Over 80% of field grade officers and midgrade to senior enlisted in the Marine Corps have children—and by children, the report only includes those under age 21 or enrolled as a student, explaining slightly lower numbers at the top ranks. The Navy looks similar (from DoD’s 2010 Demographics Report).
This really just tells us that the more senior you are, the more likely you are to have kids. Common sense. So what’s the point here?
As many of us know, military life requires a unique commitment from both the servicemember and the family. Time was, the family norm for society as a whole and the military in particular included a male breadwinner and a wife/mother at home with the kids. Due to the demands of a military career and the military lifestyle, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s simply harder for a spouse to finish an education and find stable, well-paying work if you move every few years. It’s also harder to get child care outside of the home to enable employment if you move often.
However, over the past few decades, America has changed, and so have American families. Women and men are more educated, with women comprising approximately 55% of college graduates each year, and women work outside of the home in ever-increasing numbers. By 2000, only one in five marriages featured a male breadwinner with a wife at home. Even in families with new babies, more than half of the mothers were back at work inside of a year. The vast majority of mothers work outside of the home (from the Hoover Institution’s July 2004 “The Changing American Family” by Herbert Klein).
What does that tell us?
We know the dedication and demands required by a military career, especially in the higher ranks, tougher/more rewarding jobs, and command. To succeed and excel, servicemembers with children need a supportive family: a spouse who can sacrifice to do the majority of the child-rearing, to move when needed, to single-parent when called to.
But families have changed. Military spouses have too: only 45% of officer spouses and 32% of enlisted spouses are unemployed and not looking for work (DoD 2010 Demographics Report). Single parents are increasing among active duty members just as they are in society.
Women are entering the military in greater numbers, and dual-military marriages are more common. The percentage of women in the military is increasing, and will only continue to rise.
And, ironically, women generally hit the most common childbearing years right as they approach the middle ranks, or as their husbands approach those same ranks (and wives have their own careers to maintain).
Fewer stay-at-home-moms + more career-oriented mothers + more educated members/spouses + everybody having kids later + increased demand on fathers despite military obligations + demands of ten years of war on families + no change in policy = more people leaving active duty in the middle ranks due to family obligations
Do we have to do anything to attract these people/families? Of course not. The military could keep on its present course, because there will always be a pool of individuals who fit the traditional mold of the single breadwinner with supportive spouse and kids. But American society and national trends show that this pool will be ever-shrinking. What will this pool look like in another 10 years? 20? Limiting ourselves to a shrinking group of people will severely limit the quality of those who join us and who fill our senior ranks.
There are solutions out there. I’ve mentioned sabbaticals and continue to believe the idea is solid. The current DoD sabbatical program (see the Army Times’ 17 April article for a brief synopsis) has its limits. So far, only the Navy has used it, and it expires in 2015. I like that it limits entrance to the program to 80 members a year, because that might discourage abuse and encourage only those with a real desire to use it. I only found out about such a plan two months ago, which makes me wonder how many others are ignorant of its existence. And I haven’t seen any early assessments of its success. Curious why 2015 is the end-date, too.
What was really interesting, though, was the fifth paragraph in the article, which highlighted that DoD officials were planning to expand the program, which “would give ‘greater flexibility to test and evaluate alternative career retention options in specialties and skills in which monetary incentives alone have not produced required long-term retention results’.”
It’s not about money. You can’t pay most people enough to sacrifice their families, which is how it should be. It’s about attracting and keeping those who want to serve and to continue to serve in some capacity. For the next post, on one hand we have active duty, and on the other we have leaving the service/going on sabbatical. Is there no room for a middle ground? Perhaps there should be.
Reading through my first two posts and the comments, I realized that I made things tougher and more confusing for everyone. Many ideas and thoughts came flooding out in no particular order in those first two blog entries, resulting in some 3000+ words for readers to work through and think about.
As a result, the comments and my responses were all over the page. Many readers brought up legitimate points that deserve attention. It’s a disservice to brush over these, and I have barely even started scratching the surface. So I’m going to simplify things. This will (hopefully) be a long-running blog, so I’ll try to stick to addressing one issue per post, posting only every week or so, as time allows.
First issue: is this just about my choices, or is it bigger than that?
For the first few years after my oldest was born, I was on AD, and the scarcity of other female pilots (and absolute lack of pilots who were also single mothers) meant all of my decisions were made in a vacuum with little outside guidance/support. When faced with the reality of what I was trying and failing to do, I looked at my options and chose the only one that made sense given what was available. I got out. Switched over to the Reserves.
I assumed I was alone or one of only a handful in my situation. Accepted in, didn’t like it, but figured that was it and I would find other ways to contribute. But as a Reservist, I kept running into other Reservists, male and female (all male at first because of my MOS), with similar stories. So about two years ago, I started looking into what the policies were across the services, and what many seniors and peers—again, of both genders—had decided and done. Kept coming back to the same stories, the same decision points.
So I thought, maybe we should start talking about it. Many of y’all have asked if this is a selfish thing on my part, and perhaps I should just accept the options available and get over it, or if it’s really for the good of the services. It’s a valid question, for sure.
My experience has shown me that it’s not just me, not by far. As more women enter the service, dual military marriages increase, and men take on greater responsibilities at home because of shifting gender roles, increasing loss of mid-grade enlisted and officer members absolutely will affect readiness and numbers. Many of the responses back this up.
The Reserves are one choice, made by many. But the inefficiencies of the Reserves bother me, the severe limitations of the Reserve contributions. Within my own job I’ve tried to manage that and somewhat improve it, but why stop there? Innovation is not the enemy. There are certainly holes in some of the ideas I will propose in future blogs. But that’s where informed, open-minded readers come in.
There are shortages in the force, even with manpower drawdowns. There are members—of both genders, again—that want to stay but cannot with existing policies. Is it possible to be on the tip of a spear, or to make flag rank, pursuing alternate career paths like those I’ve suggested and will suggest? Likely not. But most of us would happy to retire at 20 or 30 at any rank as long as we feel we were able to make a difference and continue to serve.
And again, these are ideas that do—and should—affect both genders.
So I’m trying to think outside of the proverbial box. Which is not a bad thing. Looking forward to future input…just don’t expect my posts to be as frequent or as long. Thanks for reading.
I wanted to write this blog because I feel that there is a major perspective missing from most professional discussions on military matters. While I do not like becoming anyone’s punching bag, I’m offering my experience, my opinion, and my story out here with my full name (Jeannette Gaudry Haynie) and rank (Major USMCR) because I believe in the truth and importance of what I write. You may not agree with what I have to say or with the conclusions I draw, but these are my experiences, and I stand by my posts.
Counting the four years at USNA, I’ve been in the Navy/Marine Corps for about 18 years now. Most of my fleet experiences were as the lone female pilot in a squadron, and eventually one of two. While I haven’t been in the military since the Stone Age, I’m no spring chicken, either. My professional record can speak for itself.
Many of these arguments and questions posted in earlier comments and mentioned when topics like these are broached are practical, common sense questions with valid points to them, ones worth debating. And others are not. I hope to address the former and briefly touch on the latter.
I’m basing this blog on what I learned early on in the fleet when I ran into friction from others because of my gender. People say and think some dumb stuff based on biases, preconceived ideas, and rumors, and I saw a fair amount of this over the years. The best way to answer that was to just do my job as best I could and eventually everyone forgot about the whole “girl” thing and I was just another pilot plugging away. This only failed me once, which means only one dude out of about, I don’t know, 5,000, couldn’t get past my gender.
Same for this blog. If I write about my experiences, which are like those many men and women face midway through their careers, maybe we can explore some other options. And maybe when my kids grow up they won’t have to choose either-or for family and ambition. Because I’m a woman, and because of my particular experiences, this means we’ll go through the women-in-the-military questions as well. Which is fine.
Please read the entire post before haranguing me for a sentence or paragraph here or there. And it may take a few minutes, because—as I’ve said before—I am prolific.
So here goes.
A couple basic points:
–I mentioned sabbaticals and greater-than-reserve contributions as some options in my last comment. But I do not want to limit this discussion to those alone. Let’s assume that there is nothing in existing policy that prohibits or discourages dual active-duty families. If this is the case, I contend that we are not doing a good enough job holistically looking at all avenues to facilitate the success of these servicemembers. This is not specifically about my responsibilities, it’s about the responsibilities of a family and a service. If my husband and I have a child while both are on active duty, we are both impacted. Active duty families are more commonplace, and will continue to be so.
–I do not feel that the military “owes” anything. I do, however, believe that the military will face a growing problem with retention of educated, loyal members OF BOTH GENDERS if it does not seek out some alternatives to the all-or-nothing ones currently in place (see above paragraph). This is the backbone of my argument.
–While women tend to bear the brunt of the family work (we can have a deeper discussion about this later), both men and women are affected when starting a family. Everything I am suggesting should be applicable to both genders. Both civilian and military members have increasingly begun to ask why things aren’t different, and why we haven’t worked out some more options. This will not abate anytime soon. And I think that is a good thing.
–Women, unlike men, can’t have children later in life. So is it right that my choice, since I was born female, should be to have or forgo children right at the time in my military career that it matters most? It’s not like I can put it off till I’m 42, despite what women in Hollywood do. Women, too, have ambitions and want to serve their country in unique and challenging ways. Yes, some families make it work, with the help of other family members or special circumstances. The majority do not, despite plenty of trying.
–As a few readers pointed out, the civilian workforce is trending toward more family-friendly policies and options. Telework, flex days, sabbaticals, while not possible in all jobs, are more commonplace now than 10 years ago. The military is not a normal civilian entity (let me say that before someone else does), but that doesn’t mean it can’t take lessons from the civilian workforce.
–Concern over the impact sabbaticals or part-time work would have on the force: I can’t remember off the top of my head which posters asked about this, but the gist of the comments were that we can’t waste billets/boat spaces on part-time people and have an effective force. One word for you here, though: RESERVES. We already do it. People drill 2 days a month and 2 weeks in the summer, and then they go deploy and are actually effective. But as a current, drilling Reservist, I can attest to the inefficiency of some of the ways Reservists are used. We can and should use taxpayer dollars and Reservists’ experience more efficiently. If someone can drill 38 days a year and then go competently into a deployment, why would it be worse if they drilled 76 days a year? Or 114? The point is, we already exercise a similar type of program, and have for years. But that program fails to take advantage of some of the best qualities of its members, and does not attract enough outgoing active duty folks. We can improve on it.
–I’m not advocating a constant sabbatical, nor am I asserting that I can stay in part-time and still be on the cutting edge or tip of the spear constantly. But all-or-nothing is no solution, either. The military loses a wealth of experience in the loss of mid-grade enlisted and officer members (again: of both genders), and will continue to do so, at an increasing rate. Do we “have” to do any of the things I suggest, or think about them at all? Of course not, but we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot. We have an opportunity to make it better, why not use it?
I’m going to use a few quotes from the comments section on my first post and directly respond here.
“I don’t want to get into the discussion on here, but do you really want your kids in child care long enough for you to be a full-time Marine and a mom?” Of course not, but neither do any parents, mothers OR fathers. The idea that my priorities should be different because of my gender is not valid. My whole point is that it makes sense to have better options available to servicemembers both with—and without—families. Those without often realize 5-10 years in that a family might be a good idea, but for females in this position, waiting until retirement is not an option. Neither is it for many men.
“You are basically saying that since they opened the door to you and allowed this disruption to occur, we should make more allowances and disruptions in service to further make life easier for women to be in the military and have families.” I’m going to address the first half of this statement further below, so moving on to the second half: anyone who has been in the fleet knows that men cause their share of problems. I served with both male and female enlisted Marines, and proportionally the men caused more problems than women did. Are DUIs not disruptive, especially when they come on the eve of a deployment? What about domestic abuse, alcoholism, and the 22-year-old who got arrested making donuts on somebody’s front lawn in Oceanside while drinking beer? The month before a deployment?
Pregnancy, which, by the way, is an amazing thing, not something to be cursed at or wished away, is way down there on the list of things that can disrupt a unit about to deploy. What about the SSgt who pops positive two months before a deployment? Or the Marine who steals a car in Okinawa and gets arrested by the Japanese police? The senior officer and department head who gets a DUI? The Marine whose mother gets terminally ill? The conscientious objector that appears right before a deployment? Of all of the incidents and disruptions a unit faces prior to and during a deployment, pregnancy can certainly be considered one, but it’s by no means even among the worst or hardest to get past.
So let’s get past pregnancy as an awful thing that should somehow ban women from the armed forces, or as something that women should avoid at all costs or be ashamed of, heaven forbid.
Yes, there will always be those who abuse the system, just as with any system. But we don’t ban single 21-year-old men from the military, even though they tend to get in trouble easily. The abusers, while legendary in many people’s minds, are actually fewer and further between than one might expect from the discussion.
“So, now the military has already given up spots to women to be trained in most aspects of military life.” This line of thinking has been around for awhile. Given up spots to women? I was ranked first in my winging class, which was how I earned my chance to fly Cobras in the Marine Corps. And I am not unique. Just like men do, women work incredibly hard to get where they want to go. My spot belonged to me because I busted my butt for it.
I jumped around a bit in this post, but the gist of it is that women are not going away, and the changes I’m proposing and problems I mention are not really unique to women, either. Since I’m on page 3 here, I’m going to quit for now. Here’s this last bit in closing:
The vast majority of the comments have been professional, and that is appreciated…and also expected. In reading the comments, I ran across a link to a blog written by Sol, one of the commenters. If you want to read it yourself, click on his name on the comments section and it’ll take you right there. You’ll read some pretty derogatory comments, a personal attack on my sex life and choices. You may need to skip to page 3 or 4 by now, because he made these comments back on the day I made my first post. Here’s one of his thoughts:
“She was pregnant at the time. PATHETIC! Personal opinion but few things disgust me more than to see women walking around pregnant in Cammies.”
This is not conducive to any kind of educated, informed discussion. Rather, it’s a hostile personal attack. But why? Hostility usually hides ignorance, fear, and/or general intimidation. If the above statement reflects the average opinion of single, 21-year-old male Marines (pretty sure it doesn’t), give me one married Marine (of either gender) over 10 of ones who think like that. Maturity, responsibility, and patience tend to increase with parenthood. Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot. It’s not political correctness, it’s common sense.
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