The American Legion’s 51st Annual Washington Conference featured a panel discussion on the military experiences of women veterans, as well as the evolving role of women in uniform.
Panel members included Wilma Vaught, a retired Air Force brigadier general and president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation; Frances Rivera, Army command sergeant major of the Northern Regional Medical Command at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; L. Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot wounded in combat and a VA assistant secretary; and Peter Hinz, brigadier general in the Maryland Army National Guard.
Vaught, who joined the Air Force in 1957, noted that women made up less than one percent of the U.S. Armed Forces at the time. In October 1968, she was one of only four women assigned to her duty station in Saigon. While women in the military did not receive weapons training, Vaught learned how to fire both a rifle and handgun.
“There is almost nothing today that is like the way it was when I went in,” Vaught told the audience. In the 1960s, women had only two career paths in the military: administration or medical. It was the all-volunteer force, Vaught said, that compelled DoD to open up nontraditional fields to women.
Vaught recalled touring one air base that had three women among its ground crew. “The sergeant told me they were the best engine mechanics he ever had,” she said. “So we made these breakthroughs, but it wasn’t easy. Because those first women that were out there in the non-traditional fields had a tough go of it. But they hung in there and they did it.”
Duckworth, who is now VA’s assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, began Army helicopter flight school in 1993. Seasoned noncommissioned officers helped Duckworth early in her career as an officer.
In November 2004, the Black Hawk helicopter Duckworth was flying in Iraq got hit by a rocket-propelled grenade; she lost the lower part of both legs and her right arm was severely injured.
Duckworth is especially grateful to “those Vietnam helicopter pilots. Whether it was in my military service, them mentoring me, or once I got hurt, it was the Vietnam vets who showed up, who really taught this country to care for and love her warriors in this war, even though they, themselves, were never shown the respect.”
The panel then shifted its focus to the evolving role of women in combat. Hinz said that transport units in Iraq and Afghanistan know they are going to be involved in combat; convoys with women also get attacked.
“It’s a very dynamic and fluid environment, and women are doing the same jobs and performing the same functions as men are,” he said.
Women can’t be officially assigned to combat units, but Rivera explained that since women are very useful in some combat roles, the Army attaches women to combat units as a way to get around the restrictions. Women troops may end up in a firefight, but they are still officially supply sergeants or medics.
“Two of our female medics have earned Silver Stars during this war,” Rivera said. “So they’re actually doing a lot of the same (combat) missions. Sometimes they don’t get credit for them. But they are out there, kicking doors and taking names.”
Duckworth added that Marine Corps female engagement teams are playing a key role in Afghanistan by connecting with women and children, and acting as a “third gender” that communicates effectively with male tribal elders. “They’re amazing with what they’ve been able to do,” she said.
On March 7, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission submitted a report to Congress with 20 recommendations for improving leadership in the 21st-century military.
The report’s executive summary said the military must remove institutional barriers, “especially those relating to assignments... An important step in this direction is that DoD and the Services eliminate combat exclusion policies for women... to create a level playing field for all servicemembers who meet the qualifications.”
Recommendation 9 in the report calls for “deliberate steps in a phased approach to open additional career fields and units involved in ‘direct ground combat’ to qualified women,” and that DoD and the Armed Services “should report to Congress the process and timeline for removing barriers that inhibit women from achieving senior leadership positions.”
Vaught said she is looking forward to seeing combat rules changed for women troops. “That will be removed, I hope, and women will be able to be assigned where the commanders need them to work – subject to being properly trained.”
For video of Vaught, click here.
For video of Duckwork, click here.
For video of Hinz, click here.