I was going to publish another article but just saw that the Secretary of Defense is going to announce a plan to open all combat positions to women. I’m glad women will now have the opportunities I couldn’t.
When I was in the Air Force women weren’t allowed to be any “combat” position. I was offered a pilot slot but turned it down because I couldn’t fly fighters. Women were limited to transport and refueling aircraft which meant we had to either “haul trash” or “pass gas.” Neither was appealing to me.
As an engineer, men could be part of the “combat engineers” which to me sounded like a great adventure because they got to do all the really cool stuff. As a woman, sorry, no can do. However, I was sent to the training and I was either the first or second female officer to go through the course. The instructors literally wanted me to sit in the tent and watch. I refused. I wanted to direct the entire exercise scenario because I had experience doing it back at my base. I was told “No.” So they sent me out to the field where they expected me wilt under the Florida heat and humidity.
In our scenario we had to recover from a major strike. It began as chaos and only grew worse. Very hot and frustrated I grabbed a radio out of an NCO’s hand and started talking to the “director” about the situation. I described the scene and what I thought the priorities should be. The director was confused. He was removed from the scene and couldn’t picture what was going on. Eventually I started directing from the field. It was multi-tasking Nirvana which is why I always loved that role.
Afterwards, I went up to the instructors and told them that for the next scenario I was going to be the director. I was and the exercise went very smoothly. The instructors who looked down on me the first two days were now suddenly very friendly and dragged me off to meet the commander to talk about how well I did even though I was starving and dying to take a shower.
For the third exercise I didn’t direct, I instructed the man who was the director.
What I noticed was the difference in my perspective about being the director from the men’s. The scenario was set up with the director removed from the action because men believed that is how you direct – to manage the big picture you have to be removed from it. For women, to understand the big picture we do better when we are part of it. For the first scenario I was in the field, amongst all the action so I understood what was happening. For the second scenario when I was removed from the field I still kept asking questions and picturing what was happening to make myself feel like I was amongst the action. When I instructed the next director I tried to teach him to be part of the action and not removed from it.
To their credit the instructors understood exactly what I was doing. After the third exercise we had a long discussion. Because of their previous roles the instructors were used to being in the field and part of the action. They were uncomfortable being in the command tent and like me really didn’t get it as to how you can direct something without being a part of it. We talked a lot about communication and how during the first exercise I described the scene so they understood what was going on even though the director who hadn’t been out in the field was clueless. What we really discussed was blending male and female perspectives to improve how we approached the scenario. Until I came out there they didn’t know what was possible. They didn’t believe that a woman could actually enhance the exercise.
That training only intensified my desire to be part of Red Horse which was the Air Force’s combat engineers. I knew I would excel at it. That Florida training proved it. But I couldn’t. Every few months the assignment people would call and ask me if I would go to Korea. I always had the same reply “Can I be in Red Horse?” Their answer was “No” so my answer to them was “No.”
I am glad women now have the opportunity to enhance combat roles. There may be only a few women who are qualified for the various roles but I have no doubt they will make a significant positive impact. It’s been a long time coming.
Empowered Women Have the Opportunity to Fulfill Any and All Roles
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