Last night I got to visit with a good friend who is about to retire. We spent most of the visit talking about her post-retirement project, which was fitting for Memorial Day: the day after her retirement ceremony, she is embarking on a cross-country bike ride to meet with and interview Gold Star Mothers. The purpose of her ride is to focus on the families and the sons and daughters they lost, to give a voice to the memories that they have, and to remember. She’ll ride from state to state, and as she completes each day or more of riding, she will meet these families and conduct interviews. The interviews are not so much formal interviews as they are a way for these families to share their memories of their sons and daughters so that others will get to know them too. She’ll see baby pictures and scrapbooks, watch videos and hear stories. And in the process, and in her subsequent work on the subject, she will get to know some of those we have lost and—more importantly—will keep their memories alive.
It’s going to be exhausting and draining, and I am humbled by the enormity of her project.
We forget so easily—and yes, those of us who have served tend to forget less easily than others, but we all forget at some point—the enormity of the loss and sacrifice that so many have endured. As a nation, we pay tribute on our appointed “holiday” days. And then life goes on for most.
As a child, I often heard the story of my great-uncle George, who enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II and was killed in action during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He was the youngest of seven children, the baby of a big, Catholic family in New Orleans. Family legend has it that when he was 17, the Marine Corps recruiter told him he was too short to enlist, and he desperately wanted to be a Marine, so he went home and stretched himself out by holding onto the claw feet of the bathtub. Sure enough, within a year, he was miraculously tall enough to enlist, so he shipped out and ended up on Iwo Jima.
Private First Class Dittmann was present for the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, but just over two weeks later, he was killed. My great-grandparents received the telegram notifying them of his death. Painfully, shortly after that, the mailman brought a letter from George, written shortly before he was killed. Today, my grandmother remembers with incredible clarity the pain of that time. I’ve only seen two pictures of him, and to the best of my knowledge, that’s all that the family had when he died, barely 19 years old.
Things are different now in some ways: technology has changed that. If he had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, the details of his death might still be fuzzy, but his pictures, videos, and cell phone messages would still be around. But in other ways, nothing has changed. The grief, the painfully empty space, and the loss are all the same. Memorial Day should make people remember, but only if they have forgotten. Memorial Day in the Washington area is a series of cookouts and sales and pool parties and parades. And oh, that’s right, a day to remember those we have lost. For my great-grandmother, and for all of the mothers, fathers, siblings, children, husbands and wives left behind, Memorial Day is not a single, lone day. Memorial Day is every day, every hour, and every minute for the rest of their lives.
As stories of a massive manhunt through Boston and of the still-unfolding drama surrounding Monday’s events capture the attention of every news network, I am struck by our collective reaction to Monday’s attacks. Yesterday morning, the Washington Post’s editorial page carried a number of letters to the editor concerning the Boston Marathon bombing. One letter in particular jumped out: the author worried that Americans feel too safe these days and have grown too complacent, and as a result are less vigilant; she concluded that what this country needs is heightened security and additional precautions, since our current system didn’t prevent the attacks from happening.
In a similar vein, I got hit with an unexpected question Monday night: am I still planning to run the Marine Corps Marathon this fall? The question gave me pause. I’ve run Marine Corps as often over the years as deployments and children allowed, and ran Boston once some years ago (I remember that finish line spectacularly well, mostly because I barely crossed it). The family often comes out to watch, and the team I run Marine Corps with has accumulated a strong cheering squad and support group at the finish. But what would the reverberations of Monday’s events be? Would people want their families to be there after what happened in Boston? Would I? And would I feel safe running it?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. Yes, yes, and again, yes. Absolutely, I’ll run the Marine Corps Marathon, as will thousands of others. We will run it with pride, anger, and disgust, directed at those who spread fear within our borders. What happened Monday is exceedingly rare here, and in that we are beyond fortunate; Boston should remind us of that. What happened is abnormal, horrific, and yet so often, in so many places that are not America, people are numb to it. Not here. Our defenses and security measures are imperfect; we cannot see and catch all. But when a bad apple gets through and inflicts harm upon fellow Americans, we react. We abhor. And we bear witness. Monday’s events had news outlets tripping over each other trying to get the facts out; four days later we can still see the same ubiquitous slow-motion video clip of the explosions everywhere we look. The analysis is too much, perhaps even voyeuristic, sensationalistic. But that’s far better than the alternative, and it keeps us aware.
My immediate reaction to the letter I initially described was primarily an instinctive hatred for the unwelcome image of this nation gripped by fear. We should always be improving security, and we should always be alert. We should embrace our families, and fear for their safety. Yet part of what makes this country amazing is that there will still be marathons, and there will still be spectators at the finish line. We will continue to fly, to travel, and to gather in large numbers in public places. We will continue to be shocked when terrorists attack here, obsessive in the aftermath, and naïve in our beliefs that we can really keep terrorism out of our borders. What scares me most of all is the image of an America where those things cease to happen.
Last Friday, in the wake of the two-week-old announcement overturning the Combat Exclusion Policy, I attended a panel event about the removal of the CEP and its implications for the services. Having seen the damage that the CEP could—and did—do, I wrote about it both for a blog post and as a news article. The policy’s removal was both anticlimactic and embarrassingly necessary. It’s embarrassing that it took us this long—in a force that hinges on the high expectations and ambitions of hard-working people—to dispose of this policy. Despite an entire system set up to evaluate individuals on merit, the CEP codified the idea that ability mattered less than boy-or-girl.
But now that the CEP is—sort of—removed, what comes next? How do we as a military do this right, without overthinking things or treating people like children? The symposium was planned to address specific concerns about how the changes would impact the force, and to discuss past successes and failures both here and abroad. The main concerns included how to ensure that standards are set and remain high, how to avoid overthinking and micromanaging the process, possible impacts on unit cohesion, and more. It featured four different panels and 17 speakers. Most of the panel members were current or retired military; some are still on active duty and will deploy again shortly. Among the panelists were: Specialist Shoshana Johnson, USA (Ret); Major Mary Jennings Hegar, ANG; Sergeant Julia Bringloe, USA; Specialist Heidi Olson, USA; CAPT Joellen Oslund, USNR (Ret); Colonel Martha McSally, USAF (Ret); and Colonel Ingrid Gjerde, Norwegian Infantry.
Anyone interested in watching can view the videos here. The first and second panels were particularly interesting as they included testimony from American and foreign women who had experience in ground combat, among others.
Opponents of allowing women into ground combat roles have expressed concern that if units become co-ed, when under fire, men will forget their training and rush to help the women, risking mission and unit in the process. But panelist after panelist told otherwise. Major Hegar relayed how she and her crew crash-landed while on a mission in Afghanistan; while defending the crashed aircraft, they came under enemy fire. The crew fought back fiercely, as they had been trained to do. Her gender was not an issue. And why? Because they knew and trusted each other, had trained together and respected each other. Specialist Olson, Sergeant Bringloe, and Specialist Johnson emphasized the same points, echoing that the team is paramount, and that the vital piece was always the training: training as a unit allowed for development of the necessary rapport and respect, something that being “temporarily attached” does not provide.
Physical standards, specifically upper-body strength, have historically commanded the majority of the coverage in past discussions. But as most of the panelists pointed out, physical strength—especially upper-body strength—is only one part of the puzzle. Endurance, mental toughness, the ability to remain calm under fire—these cannot easily be taught yet are critically important, and none are gender-specific. I was sitting next to an infantry Marine in the audience, and on a break he mentioned that in Afghanistan, he’d seen a women break down while taking fire. Yet he’d also seen one of his own Marines fall apart and go into the fetal position, and he’d had to send others in after him, endangering them all. We often ignore the fact that while physical strength is one part of it, mental toughness is another. And mental toughness is not gender-specific.
But the physical aspect is undeniably part of it all. Greg Jacob, a prior infantry Marine, related how he had taken command of a company at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry and found himself working with women for the first time. Amazed that they couldn’t do pull-ups easily, he started them on a pull-up program, and soon everyone was knocking out pull-ups together; the problem was that the women had never trained for them, since the PFT only required the flexed-arm hang. We can develop strength in people, and we can develop endurance. But we have to train to the standards, and to do that we must set—and not lower—high standards.
And as to endurance and toughness, the panelists’ experiences highlighted how those qualities also come in both men and women. One audience member, a prior Marine infantryman, relayed the tale of a deployment he had to Okinawa years ago. He explained that his battalion had performed a number of long marches in full gear, and as they were struggling up the mountains in the Northern Training Area, they were accompanied by older Okinawan women. These women carried large baskets of water and other supplies on their heads and backs, and generally arrived at the destination in much better shape than the Marines did.
The physical standards were a recurring item for discussion throughout the day. Comments in the press by General Dempsey about developing a “critical mass” and having “enough women” are worrisome, and speak to a different path than what is needed to do this right. As I wrote about in the news piece for USNI, standards for each job must be defined, if specific ones are called for, and those should not shift to accommodate anyone. If this means only one or two women serve in each unit, or none, so be it. Some men may get cut as well if the standards are stricter than, for example, the current standard to become an infantry Marine. But every panelist repeatedly urged our leadership to set and adhere to high standards.
As to fears about unit cohesion, so much of it comes down to leadership, and to training to standards and expectations. Co-ed units have been deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade now, and they are strong and successful. Many of the panelists—and many in the audience—had deployed in co-ed units, and those units served ably and confidently. Leadership is paramount, just as it is for everything else we do. Expecting this to be any different is naïve.
Much more was said, but I’ll stop there to keep this from going on longer. At the end of the day, the main suggestions mirrored the panel discussions. Set high standards and stick to them. Expect high performance. Train to higher standards. Treat those serving as functioning adults rather than children who require constant hand-holding. Exercise leadership; as in any unit, the signs are there when trouble is ahead. And so many concerns can be overcome with a small amount of common sense and practicality.
As to the CEP, good riddance. It was a policy proven obsolete time and time again. It caused the “temporary attachment” of women to all-male infantry units that they had little integration or training with prior to deployment, weakening links that did eventually develop, and drove a wedge between those serving, labeling some as less qualified based solely on how they were born vs. actual capabilities. In effect, the CEP held that Justin Bieber is more qualified than Venus Williams to perform the duties of an 0311 (I paraphrased this from Colonel McSally, who used it repeatedly). We’re much better off acknowledging that this is not the case at all.
In light of the previous post by USNI admin, and the commentary generated, I’d like to add my thoughts in the form of a picture. Or rather, two pictures. And neither one is taken particularly well, for which I apologize.
Back story: last weekend, we took the kids up to Annapolis to see downtown and the Yard all decorated for Christmas. On a trip through the Naval Academy Club (BOQ), we came upon this gingerbread house. No doubt paid for by taxpayer dollars. Hmmm.
Very nice, of course, and I thought the midshipman sneaking out of the house was fitting.
Of course, someone had made a slight change from the original model:
It was nice to see that some things, like the behavior of 18- to-22-year-olds, will never change. And then my 4-year-old asked me why one reindeer was on top of the other one.
I’m inclined to think—based on my reading of the info in the admin post below—that the cancellation of the live Nativity in Bahrain was somewhat over-the-top. However, I’m also inclined to believe that: a) I belong to a mainstream religion and have never felt marginalized for any religious beliefs, and b) we have bigger problems to argue about.
I, for one, got a laugh from the taxpayer-funded reindeer…um…party that apparently lasted all night at USNA (when we came through the next morning Dasher and Prancer were back in their originally intended, separate spots).
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.
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