Sharing the pros, cons of serving as military women

By Anna Lewinska-Kopper
Special to the Herald Union

They are military pilots and police; they disarm mines; and they patrol dangerous areas outside their bases. They command missile units, fighter squadrons and space shuttles. They are held as prisoners of war and they die in battle.

Recent history has shown that women can hold their own in combat, but discussion about allowing women to serve in all military occupational specialties continues.

Currently there are more than 213,000 women serving in the armed forces, about 15 percent of the total according to information at the Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Most — 72,000 — are Army members.

Very often motivated by patriotic ideals, they join the armed forces to serve their country and make a contribution to the nation. They also long for adventure and some adrenaline; they want to travel round the globe and gain respect.

Like men, they also join for the stability of the job. While other Americans are losing their jobs, Soldiers enjoy regular pay checks and salaries which increase with their rank and years of service. Military pay is equal for both sexes, unlike in the private sector where a pay gap still exists.

Moving up the ranks

Master Sgt. Renee Baldwin, a 19-year veteran, can look back on becoming the first female first sergeant for V Corps’ Headquarters and Headquarters Company in 2007. “It’s been the most challenging and memorable job I’ve had.”
As first sergeant she was the right hand of the unit’s commander. She was involved in everything from barracks inspections to disciplinary issues — with long working hours.

“I’d recommend the military for women as a great place to learn professional skills which are pretty hard to get and highly demanded in the civilian world too, like mechanics, engineering, logistics and medicine,” said Sgt. Maj. Teri Battle Bankhead, a 25-year experienced Soldier with two masters degrees. “There’s also a clear promotion system, and it is all up to you really.”

Sgt. 1st Class Billi Mitchell, a Wiesbaden communications technician with 15 years in the Army, said, “I just got selected to get my own detachment.”
Her skills and efforts have paid off, but it hasn’t come without sacrifice. Mitchell is a single mother and had to leave her 6-month-old child with her father and his wife while she was deployed to Iraq.

Mitchell said she is most proud of having worked in the White House in the Communication Agency, spending five years providing communication for the Secret Service, media and the presidential staff.

“The Army organizational culture promotes an environment that is focused on masculinity,” said Lt. Col. Yvonne Doll, an associate professor of military leadership at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. “Although the United States military was one of the first organizations to allow women and minority ethnicities equal status and equal pay, the Army still faces equity challenges with respect to promotion and advancement opportunities for women and minorities.”

“Some things may take a little longer,” said Baldwin. “Some male Soldiers may challenge their female bosses or make ‘jokes’ before they follow orders, while with a male boss above them, they just do it without any questioning.”
“There is some prejudice,” added Bankhead. “Being a boss, sometimes you have to put your big shoes on. Some males just don’t like a female in charge of them. You have to let them know who is in charge.”

“Being a boss, sometimes you have to put your big shoes on. Some males just don’t like a female in charge of them. You have to let them know who is in charge.”

Negative experiences “Women in the military cause more drama and problems,” said Jessica (she asked that her last name not be used), who has served for 10 years and said she can’t wait to get out because of medical reasons. “I joined the Army because I wanted to contribute something for my country.”

Relating how shortly after she and her husband both joined the military, they were sent to bases far apart — Jessica to Georgia and her husband to Alaska — their marriage didn’t pass the test of distance and separation. “They put him in lodging with single Soldiers. … He started cheating on me with his roommate’s sister.”

More bitter experiences came during deployments to Kuwait and Iraq. “Housing conditions for single Soldiers were really bad. I saw people getting married only because it was a chance to move out of the barracks and go to better housing.”

Although she was a skilled computer specialist, her duties were often completely unrelated to the profession, she said. “My task was filling up generators with diesel. It demanded lots of physical strength. I smelt like diesel for months. But I always tried to do my job the best possible.

“For the Army it doesn’t matter if you are a tiny girl,” she said. “You have to lift heavy objects, too, if this is what your supervisors demand. I had to do it often. The military neglects natural physiological differences between men and women. Even the gear is designed for an average sized man. It fits a guy but not me. Gear which is not designed for women harms our health and leaves us women unable to fulfill our tasks and defend ourselves in battle.”

While the Army is already developing a woman’s combat uniform and the Army Uniform Board will vote this fall whether to adopt it, it remains to be seen whether this will solve the problems experienced by women Soldiers.
“The military broke me,” she said. “All the injures I got during my combatives, at work, lack of adequate gear and a personalized PT caused serious neck and shoulder disorders, and I have to depend on medical treatment now.”

Proud of contributions

Sgt. 1st Class Mikki Wente, a chaplain’s assistant with 15 years in the military, said she is proud of her contributions to the military — especially her deployment to Afghanistan, providing spiritual and psychological support to Soldiers in the war zone. “People become more spiritual when they are in the desert, isolated, far away from their families and home. It meant a lot for the Soldiers bringing them God and religious services. It was a big morale boost that gave them strength.”
“I have to be a mother, father and psychiatrist for young Soldiers who often just s cannot take care of themselves properly,” said Bankhead. “The nicest thing for me is to see them grow and get promoted.”

Combat limitations

Women are still prohibited from some combat-related jobs, limiting their promotion opportunities. However, it may only be matter of time. At the beginning of this year, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended to Congress and President Barack Obama to allow women access to these jobs.

“Female Soldiers are, on average, shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50 percent less upper body strength and 25-30 percent less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance,” according to the Center for Military Readiness. Others argue that the presence of females could negatively affect the cohesion in combat units.

Sexual harassment and assault are negative aspects of mixing male and female warriors, despite ongoing efforts by the military to stamp out this criminal behavior.

Baldwin, a Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention specialist in her unit, conducts obligatory training sessions for Soldiers and civilian personnel.

The Army is currently carrying out a campaign called I. A.M. Strong, the message of which is: “As Soldiers, we are duty bound to Intervene, Act and Motivate others to stop sexual assaults and the sexually offensive language and gestures that create an environment friendly to this abuse.”

(Anna Lewinska-Kopper is a military spouse and volunteer with the U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Marketing Office.)