This guest post comes courtesy of Ocean_Breeze, a Senior Airman in the US Air Force.
I thought this post would be a good perspective for those who have never been in–nor wished to be in–the military. I wanted to talk about what life’s like for your fellow sisters in the services–the more everyone knows the less ignorant we are as a populace. I would like to thank the Harpies for this opportunity to share my experiences.
The first American woman soldier was Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts. She enlisted as a Continental Army soldier under the name of “Robert Shurtliff”. She served for three years in the Revolutionary War and was wounded twice; she even cut a musket ball out of her own thigh so no doctor would find out she was a woman. Her secret was eventually discovered, but George Washington still gave her an honorable discharge. She later lectured on her experiences and became a champion of women’s rights. I find this worth sharing and a bit ironic. For over 4,000 years, it’s been said that women are not fit to serve in the military because of their difference in physical strength and mental toughness–and this woman cut a musket ball out of her leg, for fuck’s sake.
To this day there are many jobs in the military that are not offered to women. One might conclude this is sexist but the argument is again, physical strength and mental differences. It is a popular bit of debate that will probably continue long after I have gotten out of the service myself. Although women are recruited to serve in the military in most countries, only a few countries permit women to fill active combat roles. Countries that allow this include New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland. Other nations allow female soldiers to serve in certain Combat Arms positions, such as the United Kingdom, which allows women to serve in Artillery roles, while still excluding them from units with a dedicated Infantry role. The United States allows women in most combat flying positions. In the American armed forces, the 1994 rules forbidding female involvement in combat units of brigade size or smaller are being bent. Colonel Cheri Provancha, stationed in Iraq, argues that: “This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it.”
A third, and common, argument against the inclusion of women in combat units is that placing women in combat where they are at risk of being captured, tortured and possibly sexually assaulted is unacceptable. In a Presidential Commission report it was found that male POWs, while being subject to physical abuse, were never subject to sexual abuse, and women were almost always subject to sexual abuse. Rhonda Cornum, then a major and flight surgeon, and now a Brigadier General and Command Surgeon for United States Army Forces Command, was an POW in Iraq in 1991. After her release, she was asked not to mention that she had been molested while in captivity. Cornum subsequently disclosed the attack, but said “A lot of people make a big deal about getting molested,” she noted later, adding: “But in the hierarchy of things that were going wrong, that was pretty low on my list.” I would like to point this out for a variety of reasons. This woman has more strength than I do, and then most men I know. I fully believe if a male soldier was molested while being a POW it would be more likely to fuck with his head than it did with General Cornum’s.
I joined the US Air Force three years ago, one fine October day in 2006. I signed up for six years. I have no qualms about admitting that I have no idea if I will stay in or not. There are many benefits and at the same time a whole lot of bullshit. I am sure one could argue that it’s the same with any career but the difference here is that if I don’t like it I can’t just quit. That could be a first class ticket straight to jail for us, and that’s after they strip you financially and you get a few rounds of military community humiliation. Let me lay it down plain and simple: these people own you. If you get a sunburn so bad you can’t put on your uniform you can get disciplined and lose pay. They consider that “damaging government property”. I’m not kidding–there are guidelines that we all must follow that specifically let you know that once you swore that oath, you are government property. You don’t just get yelled at. They will reduce your pay, and take back the insignias that we wear on our uniforms so it’s public knowledge to everyone that you are now in trouble. Our pay isn’t that sexy either, so when you get pay deducted from your checks it really hurts. I have been in for three years and my paycheck every two weeks comes around to $1, 200. What I receive is pretty standard and doesn’t sound too bad, but you have to look at it this way: if you have a family you don’t get more money for that. So if you have a car payment and rent a home and you get in trouble and lose $400 per paycheck for a few months….that hurts. And it happens all the time. I realize that big tax-payer money goes into the military but trust me, it doesn’t filter down into big paychecks for us.
I enlisted because of the simple fact that I felt I owed my service. My parents were both immigrants. My mother was born in south Mexico and my father was born in Cuba. I understand that many people argue that the USA sucks and we are going downhill, but it’s a shit load better than what both my parents had. My father would have worked an oppressive shitty job and always worried about not being able to properly feed his family had he stayed in Mexico. I am very grateful he didn’t. My mother’s experience was another reason. She went to school until sixth grade. My grandfather pulled all the women in mother’s family out of school at sixth grade; he didn’t feel they needed any further education. They could read, write and do simple math and that was enough. They got to stay at home and help with the one-woman breeding factory that was my grandmother. She successfully gave birth to 14 children that lived. So the girls (my mom included) got to take care of the little ones while Gran was nursing/pregnant. Mother has often told me that if she had not left Cuba, what awaited her was a marriage to someone she didn’t know well–Grandpa didn’t believe in contact with any men that were not family–and the possibility that the man would be alcoholic or abusive. My grandfather was both. So my mother came here instead. She earned her GED, married my father, got her citizenship and her own home, had me and my younger sister and lived what they both would consider the American Dream. Not too shabby, right? This is why I joined the military. It felt like the right thing to do, regardless of how much the politicians are shitting on the idea. I know in my heart why I joined and the ideal that is still there in me and I don’t feel the need to defend it.
The amount of resistance I encountered when I joined up was incredible. We are a very traditional family and it was especially hard for the women in the family to hear me out. The men all gave my father the biggest load of shit they could about his “butch daughter.” I give my father credit–he has slowly come around to support women in his own way, since he had two daughters and a very strong-willed wife. He didn’t let it alter his support in my choice and even helped me calm my angry mother down. For us, the military is just simply something that women don’t do. Curiously enough, even though they claim men should be doing the whole military thing, they don’t seem to notice that it’s the women in our family who have been told from day one that they can’t do this or that who are actually the ones with the college degrees, who are in the military, who own their own homes. My male cousins and uncles all either live at home, are working on marriage number four, etc. They are the ones who have been told that they are the kings of the world from birth, but we’re the ones who get things done.
The military recruiting procedure it really is just as dehumanizing as you’d think. You go through a process of poke, pry, select, study, stamp of approval/disapproval. We are separated from the men but it isn’t any better treatment than what the boys receive. You are nothing more than a number on the little piece of paper you carry around that everyone checks and reads off of but you don’t understand. Your questions are not encouraged or really answered. I remember the moment when it really hit home that I wasn’t an individual to these people, just another number: I was sitting in a room naked under a paper gown with about fifty other women who were trying to join and waiting for the doctors to come in. I don’t know if they do this to males but for females they get you in the little stirrups in a private room and peek in your gown to verify that you are indeed 100% female. That is what we were waiting for, the verification. You get two sets, one male and one female. I have no idea what they would do if someone objected to the male presence. I remember the doctors coming by with everyone’s records in a stack on a clip board and they were checking out bodies for distinguishing scars, bumps, tattoos, etc. It was my misfortune that one of my tattoos is on my moohaha so I was immediately separated from the group and looked at since they couldn’t ask me to open my robe in the room with everyone else. If you get the stamp of approval then basic training is where you go, after a few days or weeks.
Basic training is differently designed for each gender. Our physical tests are different, how we are housed is different. Around the time I joined was when the HPV vaccine was approved and we (females) were all administered the shots. No choice in the matter. We did interact with the men who were also there to train, but that was limited and very much supervised. Somehow there was still a small group that managed to get into trouble for sexual activity, despite the round-the-clock monitoring we receive.
They watched us like hawks but once I got into regular active duty I realized that what they were worried about was sexual tensions. The men become very aggressive towards the end of their training, and testosterone mixed with sexual repression and a few females living in the same building can lead to huge problems. We get to watch videos about sexual assault and what to do about it. It is understood that it happens–that’s no secret in the Air Force. I can’t speak for the other branches, I know that Army and Marines have different policies on it. Women are about 20% of active duty military and the stats on how many get raped or assaulted is enough to turn your stomach. I recall browsing an old post of the Harpies that stated the statistics.
You would think with all this “racked and stacked” that women would bond, but I find the exact opposite is usually the norm. When I arrived at the very first base where I was stationed, one of the women in the office advised me–in a private conversation–not to turn into “the dorm whore.” It’s popular knowledge that when a new woman arrives into the dormitories, she immediately generates a bit of attention from the males. We are all housed in a building together until you reach a certain rank or until you marry/have children. You have your own room but you share a bathroom and kitchen with another room. They always put women with women and men with men, but your next door neighbors could be two guys. So you can guess how that offers opportunities for stalking and harassing. It has nothing to do with levels of attractiveness at first, it’s simply that you are the new shiny object. As one guy explained it to me, “you haven’t been molested by everyone yet.” And sadly there are some women that go along with this notion and ride the train. It never stops surprising me that the guys get high-fives, the girls are the “dorm whore.” And because of this stigma most women hear those bits of advice from fellow women and that starts the, “Why the fuck is she telling me this? Do I LOOK like a skank!?!” So it’s ironic that most women give you the warning but the new women get angry at the one bit of sound advice given to them and stay away from the very women who reached out to begin with. I have been told it has always been like this.
I work in an office full of men and it is definitely a challenge. When I first arrived I won’t lie in admitting that the disappointment in my presence was palpable. I don’t wear make-up while in uniform, I don’t make myself look cute. I consider myself a professional and refuse to use my charms anywhere other than my bedroom on my own time. Picture a malnourished boy about fourteen years in age. That’s me. I’m too tall, too skinny and too angular to be anyone’s idea of a centerfold. The men in my office as they have warmed up to me admitted that at first they were excited because they hoped I would be “pretty.” My work ethic and my abilities were not the main focus, it’s what I would look like that caused speculation.
I have seen this mentality in other offices or flights. A girl comes into the office and asks questions or hands in some official documents… the moment she walks out everyone turns around. “So would you do her?” EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. No matter who is around. Sometimes in an effort to include me in the conversation I get the, “In your chick opinion what would you rate her as? From one to ten.” And the different colors of scarlet I turn while I sputter around the words I am about to throw out usually let them know how I feel about the game. It has been addressed before but with so few high ranking women around its hard to force any real change.
Most women of high rank generally are very mean to women of lower rank. It’s to show they care. They hold you to a higher standard and I can be the first to admit it sucks. I am a smoker and have been for a while. I love when a higher ranking female walks by and lets me know in a loud voice that, “that’s not what LADIES DO.” I would tolerate the criticism better if I was just reminded that the habit it nasty. It always gets turned into a gender issue regardless of how many men are standing around with cancer sticks. And due to her higher rank, I can’t answer the way I’d like to. I learned this the hard way, because then I am questioning HER authority. Even in private, it gets nasty. By the time she reaches a high rank, she’s been questioned many times before and usually by men, so when a low-ranking female talks back, she instantly has an aggressive response. The higher ranking women have to be ruthless to get where they are in a man’s world.
As of November 2008, the U.S. military has only one woman, Ann E. Dunwoody, with the rank of four-star general. That’s it, only ONE. High-ranking women try to make up for being considered unfeminine by policing the ultra-feminine. The random times I have come in with something on my face other than lotion, it’s always the higher ranking females who comment on it, and always in tones of surprise so everyone looks. My favorite is when I break one of the girly rules and am reminded that I won’t ever get a boyfriend like that. I do enjoy politely reminding them that I am not at this job to troll for a boyfriend but to pay for all the useless things I would like. I could go on about this for hours.
I will round off this post by telling you how the military has impacted my personal life. Whenever I meet men and I tell them I am in the military I always get the blank look followed by, “The Air Force, right?” When I prompt them for how they know this is the answer: “Army/Marine women are much more butch.” Apparently, women will be “butch” no matter what branch they’re in but some branches are “butcher” than others. Some guys don’t take it well at all and I get the speechless look of confusion. Again, when prompted they explain that I don’t look manly enough. Flattering, huh?
For the most part it won’t bother or intimidate men who are also in the military, but the ones who are not/have not served in any branches can get suspicious and or even pervy about it. I have been asked many questions about exactly how often “lesbian encounters” happen. Or asked how many times we look at each other in the showers–in our gym we have communal showers with no curtain–and if it was true that we all get around and want sex about as much as the guys. The suspicious ones seem to have a problem with how assertive I am in what I think and believe. They see this as manly training and not as me just wanting to have my say. Most of the young men in the military are like this, so I try to stay away from military men when it comes to dating. And we are not allowed to date higher ranking people either; it’s usually frowned on. We definitely are discouraged from dating coworkers. So it does get to be pretty difficult, and it is very difficult for women who are single regardless of what color they are. There are all these cultural rules surrounding how we should act and what we should do and what we should put up with, topped off by whatever racial stigma you get, too. It’s just not fun at all. And once in a while I run into a guy who is supportive of my career–but supportive because he smells the steady pay check and would love to have me pay for everything.
Regardless of all that I am still optimistic that there is some asshole out there for me, who will stimulate me mentally and be able to keep up with me ethically. I am indeed a practical romantic. That’s a good summary of some of my experiences, and I won’t take more of your time. I hope that this has been somewhat enlightening. Maybe when you do run into a lady in her uniform, you smile at her, regardless of how hassled she or you may look. Like everything else in life, being a woman in the military is not easy.