As more women enter the military – and increasingly take positions closer to combat – female veterans say perceptions of women in the armed forces are slowly shifting in a culture that for centuries has been geared toward men.
There are about 1.7 million female veterans living today, including about 62,000 in Ohio. They have served in both peacetime and every war since World War II., but for most, military life did not include picking up a weapon.
Dorothy Wolfe, of St. Louisville, central Ohio, was a U.S. Marine in the late 1950s and later went on to serve in the Ohio Air National Guard. She remembers her Marine boot camp as a time “when we watched a lot of films on how to wear make-up.”
“The women Marines had their own song, and the words went, â€˜We serve that men may fight to keep our country great,” Wolfe said. “We were there to support the men.”
Times are changing. Current Defense Department mandates exempt female soldiers from direct combat units such as infantry and armor, and from smaller support units “co-located,” or attached, to combat units, but over the past five years, the rules have loosened somewhat to allow women to serve in co-located units as long as they are not carrying out a mission.
As of this week, 91 women in the armed forces have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than all the women who have died in the United State`s previous wars combined. One in seven soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors serving in Iraq today is a woman.
“Women are still prohibited from direct combat, but the lines have blurred somewhat,” said Michele Jones, a veteran of the first Gulf War and the first woman to be command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Reserves. She recently retired.
The rules had to become more flexible to accommodate the nature of the war in Iraq, she said. “There is danger almost everywhere over there,” Jones said.
“Everyone – man and woman – has to know how to defend themselves.”
As the roles for women in the armed forces have evolved, female soldiers say they are making progress in the ongoing battle to be seen as real soldiers by their enlisted male counterparts.
The perception that a woman must have slept with someone to be promoted still exists, but that attitude is slowly changing, said Mone` Jackson, of Youngstown, who worked as an Army intelligence analyst.
Although most of her fellow soldiers were male, the women among them “were looked at more as soldiers than as women,” she said.
Women serving also are now earning citations for valor. In June 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, then a 23-year-old soldier from Bowling Green, Ky., became the first female soldier from the Kentucky National Guard to earn the Silver Star for valor in combat. According to her medal citation, she fought her way out of an enemy ambush south of Baghdad and maneuvered her team through dangerous areas.
Last month, 500 women gathered in the central Ohio village of Ashville at the second annual conference for female veterans. They came to celebrate women serving in the armed forces and commemorate those who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Carroll Hindsman, of Goshen, who served in Germany in the mid-to-late 1970s, was full of respect for women serving overseas today.
“What these young women are experiencing now, we never had to do,” said Hindsman. “We were never that close to combat. You have to admire them.”
Some still do not agree with female soldiers` new positions closer to the front lines. Elaine Donnelly, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Military Readiness, female soldiers no matter how competent or brave, should not be put into places where it is possible to earn combat decorations.
The Army is changing the rules without authorization from the secretary of defense or the Congress, said Donnelly, who served on a Pentagon advisory committee on women in the military during the Reagan administration.
“They`re violating their own rules. And right now, the rule seems to be, anything goes,” she said.