How I Really Feel: This Lady Soldier’s Take on Women in Combat

One the biggest news stories from last week, at least in Terra-land, was the Pentagon announcement that the ban on women serving in combat roles was being lifted. It’s something I’ve written about before, about how other countries are doing it, about the excuses people use to rationalize the exclusion, and it’s something I have a lot of feelings about, being that I am a lady Soldier and have been for the past almost-decade.

What fascinates me the most when announcements like this come out is the response, the chorus of dissent and acceptance, the screechy voices lamenting the rise of feminism and the fists-in-the-air shouts of celebration and exhalations of “FINALLY.” I read a handful of news stories on it, read the work emails that came across about it and tried not to fall too deeply down the well of vile comments and, for the most part, I succeeded, but the excuses and lamentations still surprised me, no matter that I’ve heard them all before.

The thing is, we’ve done this all before. This integration thing isn’t new, but neither is the chorus of complaint that accompanies any major military policy shift. Every change we make, if you listen to the naysayers, will destroy us as the world’s premier military force. We all heard it last year, when our military made the decision to allow gays to serve honorably and openly in our armed forces. The comment threads on that topic assured me that half the nation’s servicemembers were ready to walk out on their military commitment, for fear of finding themselves in a foxhole with a “fag,” because surely, gays in the military would degrade our might and ruin us as a military force, never mind that they’ve been there all along, quietly serving a country they love in spite of its intolerance.

The awful things that were supposed to happen with that integration and that acceptance didn’t happen. Military members aren’t leaving in record numbers and our Armed Forces haven’t fallen to bits. Neither did we fall apart as a force when we integrated racially, and neither will we when we allow women to fill combat roles.

And the thing is, women are already in combat. This isn’t new. The reality of war is that women are already there. The war we fight today is not the same as the one we fought 40 or 50 or 70 years ago. It is different and there is no front line. Women have already been wounded and killed in combat, and while some like to argue that seeing America’s daughters coming home in body bags is more difficult for us as a nation to swallow than seeing America’s sons in those same bags, I’d like to counter that the death of any Soldier, male or female, is a difficult and painful thing, and arguing that the death of one over the other is “easier” is complete and utter bullshit.

Then there’s the argument that women in combat could be a distraction to our male Soldiers, that they will suddenly be unable to perform in combat situations, instead focusing their attention on protecting their female comrades, or that they’ll be so blinded by lust that they’ll be unable to accomplish the missions assigned to them. Personally, I have more faith in the male Soldiers I’ve served beside than to believe that their professionalism and acumen will be downgraded in a combat situation by the presence of my vagina on a battlefield.

It goes on. The rationalizations for the exclusion of women in combat arms fields range from arguments on the sacredness of tradition to the matter of hygiene in a field environment. People argue that women can’t handle it, that they’ll cause a lowering of standards, that their fertility may become a liability if they’re taken as prisoners of war, that they’re too pretty for combat, and on and on and on, a whole list of reasons to dig in our heels and avoid forward movement.

The reality of the world and our military today is that things are different and if we have any hope of maintaining our dominance as a military force, we have to be able to adapt to those differences and changes as they develop, we have to be able to step forward into the world that evolves around us. Women are more than mothers and daughters. We lead lives outside of the home, we balance careers and families and have a roster of successes in breaking barriers and glass ceilings. We are capable and competent. We can’t only when we’re barred from trying.

“I think it’s time we stop being surprised that America’s daughters are just as capable of defending this nation as her sons.” — Rep. Tammy Duckworth

Sometimes when you decide to say yes, you end up shooting cannons.

True story.

About a month ago I realized that, in order to have adventures, I had to first say yes to those adventures and so, for the past month, I’ve approached most opportunities with an open heart and an open mind and I’ve tried to push myself to say yes in situations I usually wouldn’t.

Two Saturdays ago I was at work in a field filled with howitzers at Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Va. Howitzers, for those that don’t know, are basically giant guns, or cannons, that fire 105mm rounds. They blow shit up. They’re loud. They’re incredibly powerful and amazing and I will jump at the chance to go watch them fire any day of the week, even on a Saturday.

I was about to leave for the day, having gotten my fill of howitzer firing and having completed the task I’d gone out there for when one of the people in charge asked me if I’d ever fired a howitzer.

“No,” I said.

“You want to?” he asked.

Without missing a single beat I said yes, I would love to fire a howitzer, that it would absolutely make my day if I got to fire a howitzer and so we went to the closest gun and I got all set up with the proper safety gear and I got all excited and freaked out and had a moment of HOLY FUCK THIS IS MY LIFE and then I pulled the lanyard to fire a howitzer and it was maybe the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten to do at my job.

I’m the one in the middle of the photo, standing next to the gun (not the one holding the round and not the one plugging his ears), first with the excited and suspicious face on and then with the face of someone trying very hard to pull  a lanyard hard enough to avoid falling over like I’d seen approximately three other people, all family members, do earlier that day and twisting my whole body with the effort of it.

It was amazing. There’s this incredible jolt of noise and power that courses through the Earth when a howitzer is fired and as many times as I’ve seen these massive systems fire, it’s still incredible to be the one responsible for actually firing it. It’s crazy to think that all that noise and smoke and power came from a tug of my hand and a twist of my body.

All this to say, I’m doing things.

Someone asked me, when she discovered Andrew would be gone for so long, what my goals were, what I hoped to accomplish during his absence. It’s something I’d thought about before, but it reenforced the realization that this time I have on my own needs to end with a list of accomplishments. I want to be able to cite a handful of really awesome things, things I’m proud of, that have been accomplished while I’ve been on my own.

In two months I’ve rappelled off a tower, fired a howitzer (twice, actually) and taken the GRE. After this weekend, I’ll have completed my longest and toughest mud run to date, the Super Spartan, an 8 mile, 20 obstacle bear of a race. And there’s still 12 months to go.

Warrant Officers, love & 8,000 happy tears.

On Tuesday I flew from Richmond to Charlotte to Pensacola and then drove the two and a half hours to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where I waited, anxiously, to see my husband for the first time in 46 days. He was released, we texted, found a meeting point and when his car pulled up next to my rental (a Prius, natch), I burst into tears.

He climbed into my car and I stared at him, teary eyed and breathless and we hugged across the center console. I buried my face in his neck, breathing it all in, reveling in the first bits of physical contact I’d had with my husband and best friend in six and a half weeks and dripping tears onto his collar.

We’d only spoken four times in the past five and a half weeks, since he started Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS). He’d been forced to turn in his phone back at the end of June and it wasn’t until three and a half weeks later that he’d gotten his first phone call.There was so much to say, so much to catch up on, but in that moment – that first moment – all I could do was cry and nuzzle my face further into his neck.

That night there was a reception, a chance for family members to meet the Warrant Officers who had been responsible for our Candidates for the past several weeks. I got to meet Andrew’s roommates, his Training, Advising and Counseling (TAC) Officers and had an ample amount of time to stand around awkwardly in a dress and heels. For the first time in our four and a half years of marriage, I stood next to Andrew at a military event as his wife, not his fellow Soldier. I felt like I was incognito, undercover in my pearls and heels, disguised by my sock bun.

He got an overnight pass on Tuesday, but had to back at work my 5am on Wednesday in order to prepare for his 10am graduation.

I donned my dress uniform, the one I only wear once a year or so, and returned the more familiar role of wife and Soldier.

Andrew raised his right hand, again, and pledged allegiance to America and the state of Virginia, so help him God, and then his name was called and up I went to pin new rank on him, the rank of Warrant Officer, and just like that the Staff Sergeant I used to be married to turned into a Warrant Officer.

 I saluted him, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

I returned to my seat and looked at him, smiling as tears filled my eyes. I can’t express how proud of him I am, how in love with him I am, how lucky I feel to be able to call him my husband. He’s amazing, really. He’s capable of anything he puts his mind to. He’s wanted this for years and he’s doing it now and this accomplishment, this move to become a Warrant Officer, is a first in a whole list of accomplishments that I can’t wait to celebrate with him. I am so lucky, so, so, so incredibly lucky to have found him, to have had the sense to marry him and to have been able to call him mine for all of these years.

I looked at him as we drove back to the hotel to change and again, for maybe the one millionth time since we got married four and a half years ago, I fell in love with him.

The Differences of Lady Soldierhood, What I Learned From Canada & the Hygiene Excuse.

In February I had a chance to work with a group of Soldiers from the Canadian Army. They come to Virginia each year to make use of our usually mild weather (although it snows each time they visit), and to use some of our military training facilities. It’s always an experience when they come and I think both sides leave the table with a lot more knowledge each time we come together.

The Canadians are great to work with. In talking with them I tried not to giggle when they said “eh?” and marveled at the way they say “out” and “about” that I can’t even try to replicate, but most of the time I spent with the Canadians when I wasn’t filming or interviewing was spent trading stories. We talked about shared frustrations, and found, time and time again, that the same roadblocks they’ve hit, we’ve hit too. I said over and over and over again that it was nice to know that the situations we encounter aren’t unique, that our neighbors to the North have the same experiences. It’s nice to know you’re not alone.

But then we went out to see some artillery pieces fire. These are, simply, really big fucking guns. We call them “triple sevens,” and the Army calls them M777 Howitzers. They weigh about 9,300 pounds. They are serious, big fucking guns. Our Army created these beasts and then the Canadian Army bought some and now we’ve both used them in Afghanistan.

I was standing between two of the guns, waiting to get a shot of them firing and I made some comment that showed I had some knowledge of the howitzers and one of the Canadian men in charge asked if I was in the artillery. I laughed and said no, but that I’d seen artillery pieces fired before and was marginally familiar with how the guns worked.

The guns started firing and the conversation ended, but I sat there perplexed. I’m a lady soldier. In the US, lady soldiers can’t be in the artillery. Or the infantry. Or any other combat arms specialty. That Canadian asked if I was in the artillery like it was no big deal, and I was struck by it. The idea seems so foreign to me, so impossible.

Once the guns stopped firing, we talked briefly with the Canadians about their unit, their experiences and their deployments and I asked if they allowed women in their artillery. They told me yes, of course women are allowed in the artillery. Our commander is a woman, she should be coming this way soon, you can meet her. Wait – you guys don’t allow women in the artillery?

No. No we don’t.

They were perplexed. Surprised. It seemed weird to them, that we, America, is so far behind the times.

Later I brought it up with a female Canadian public affairs officer and told her how surprised we were to find women in the artillery. She filled me in on the details, telling me that in the EIGHTIES they did a test run with women in combat arms fields, including the infantry and artillery, and the world didn’t implode and shit didn’t hit the fan, and so in 1989 they opened the gates and let women serve in combat arms fields. She said that since 1989 was so long ago, most men don’t bat an eye at the idea since women have been serving beside them for most if not all of their careers.

It’s 2012, y’all. TWENTY FUCKING TWELVE. And we? The greatest nation in the world? We ain’t there yet.

Before heading home for the day we stopped by the rappel tower, which is exactly what it sounds like, a great big fucking tower that you rappel from. American Soldiers were teaching the Canadian Soldiers rappelling techniques. We talked briefly with an older, senior US infantryman and learned that the element we were watching rappel was an infantry unit that included a few women. Andrew and I (we work together every day because we are brave and make a great team as a videographer and photographer) mentioned how impressed we were with all the Canadian women in combat arms roles. He said he didn’t think women couldn’t meet the standards, that women were capable of getting the job done. I took this as  support for woman in combat roles, and said I agreed, that if women can meet the standard, there’s no reason they shouldn’t serve.

He said he was just going to be quiet. I wanted to know his thoughts on it, and I didn’t press, but gave him a look of curiosity. He said he didn’t think women should be allowed in the infantry for hygiene reasons. I laughed. Couldn’t help it. I asked what he meant. He asked me if I really thought women could handle being in the field for 10 days without a shower. I said there’s no reason a male Soldier would be better at being dirty that me. I can be dirty. He said yeah, but you’ve gotta crawl through mud and dirt.

You mean like that time I ran a Warrior Dash and low crawled through a pit of mud under some barred wire? Or that time I went to basic training and crawled through mud and sand and dirt and spent several days in the field without a shower? I didn’t say it. I just scoffed. I was shocked. Said that I loved mud and dropped the conversation because there’s a time and a place and that was neither.

But I’m still pissed. It’s been weeks and I’ve vented to everyone I know.

I’m got over it, I guess. I’m over the stupid excuses, the petty reasons to resist change. I’m over resisting progress. I’m over watching something work, really, truly, legitimately work for another nation and then watching our leaders shake their heads in dismay as if we’re so different.

Things change. That’s the way it is. Nothing stays the same or we’d still be simple amoebas. Forward movement is mandatory if we want to stay competitive and relevant in a changing world. We can’t sit, hunched up like gargoyles, resisting the changes that are taking place in every great nation around the world. We can’t ostrich our way through life. We’ve got to honey badger that shit, do what’s right and adjust and overcome.

The deployment that wasn't.

Just before Thanksgiving, Andrew and I got word we would be deploying to Iraq toward the end of this year.  The initial notice felt like a sucker punch to the gut. Yes, we’re always ready and more than willing to deploy and have talked about it often, but when you finally get the word that it’s happening, it’s a shock. You have all these plans for the future and, even if they’re just rough plans, when they suddenly get swept out from under you, it’s a little hard to breath. I’m planner my nature.  I like my little rubber ducks to neatly in a row. I like to know the next step in life, the next block that needs to be checked and when that was all ripped away so suddenly, it took some getting used to.

Initially my mind raced with questions. What would we do with the dog? What about the house? What about all of our stuff? What do we do with our cars? What about, what about, what about…?  So we talked through it.  We developed plans. We figured it out. We moved some things around, changed some goals, and relaxed a little bit.

A few months went by and I kept getting more and more excited about deploying. I didn’t blog about it because we never got the official official notification that we were for sure, without a doubt, going.  So I waited. Andrew and I talked about it every day. We talked about what it would be like, about what we would learn, about what we would do to celebrate once we got back. We talked about big stuff, death stuff, and imagined all the great adventures we could have. We got ourselves mentally prepared, and we both started hitting the treadmill again in a hard way to get ourselves back into tip-top physical shape.

I was pumped. Ready.  I found myself getting frustrated with February and then March because they simply would not go fast enough.  I wanted it to be September. I wanted to board a plane and GO. Now. The waiting is the hardest part.  I wanted to deploy.

Then, two days before my birthday, on the day I had LASIK, we got an email that said we weren’t going. Good job on getting prepared everyone, but things have changed.

Now, I feel deflated. A little lost. Again. I was floundering when we found out we were getting deployed and that all my plans had changed and now, to have it happen again, feels even worse.

We’ve wanted to deploy again. We’ve talked about it a million times. Kosovo was a great and wonderful experience, but we want to deploy to a combat zone. The time was right. We were ready. I wanted to go.  And then no.

So yeah. All I’ve wanted to blog about since November is the deployment and now it’s not happening.  Which is good, I guess. And bad, too.  It means I can go to school again in the summer and fall and take a few more baby steps toward getting my degree.  It means Andrew gets to turn 30 in the U.S. But it means we don’t get to deploy and experience Iraq. And it means we won’t get to take leave and go visit Andrew’s best friend in Sweden.  It means a lot of things.

Really, it’s okay. I know we’ll deploy eventually. If not now, then later. It’s the waiting though, that’s so hard sometimes.