Our second group of writers will be blogging about Women and War. Journalists, experts, female soldiers and veterans share their experiences and discuss issues including women in combat, sexual assault in the military and inadequate benefits for female veterans. What do you think about women in the military? Share your thoughts, raise a question and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
Why do so many women join the military despite the ongoing wars? I think most women join for the same reasons men do: opportunity, desire to serve and education. Personally, I joined to see what else was out there beyond small town Parkman, Maine. And in an ideal world, a soldier is a soldier and women bring nothing more than a body to fill a uniform, just like a man.
I therefore reject the idea that women somehow bring something that is more nurturing or kind or softer to the military by intent or by design. There are a number of things that the military offers that makes joining and staying in the military attractive for women and men alike. According to the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services's Annual Report for 2008, the number one reason women stayed in the military was their sense of job satisfaction and job performance. Other reasons for women to stay in the military included access to health care, education opportunities, a sense of purpose and being part of a team. The only reason these responses were singled out as female responses is because they were collected as part of a gender study. Men might have given the exact same responses.
The military's eArmyU program provides 100% tuition at universities and colleges enrolled in the program. An enlisted soldier, regardless of rank, can have her entire college education paid for by the U.S. Army. Even with the high operations tempo of the last decade, soldiers are earning degrees at unprecedented rates. If soldiers are not able to attend college while on active duty, now they can access more educational benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides the single biggest boost to veterans since the original GI Bill allowed the Greatest Generation a chance at an education. There are no combat requirements for either the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the eArmyU program. All men and women who enlist are eligible.
The educational programs I took advantage of as a young enlisted soldier were critical to my career and personal advancement. From 2000 to 2007, I was steadily enrolled in college courses, either online or in a classroom after duty hours. I earned the bulk of my master's degree while working full-time for the Army, raising two babies (both less than two years old), and with my husband deployed — twice. I finished the last course three days before reporting for Officer Candidate School. It was a challenge to complete the degree, but it was also incredibly rewarding to receive my diploma and know that I'm the first person in my family to earn a master's degree, and only the second to earn any post-secondary degree. It might have taken me a little longer to earn my degree through the military than by going through the traditional route, but in the end, no one asks how long your degree took.
Among soldiers, there are some well-known jokes about the military's health care system. One of the most common is about Vitamin M — Motrin, which is used to treat everything from broken bones to tooth aches. But the availability of health care is something I have never worried about, either for my children or myself. Going on sick call in the military is a major pain in the neck, but a doctor is always there. I've had two babies in the busiest maternity ward in the Army, and have subsequently gone to the ER for ear tube problems, a broken arm, and a few other things. It's been a huge a relief knowing that I wasn't going to have any medical bills from any of those visits.
Taking Pride in Work
In the Army, they say that if you don't like your boss, you should just wait, because one of you will leave sooner or later. While moving to new positions can be difficult for civilians, military members often thrive in new environments, excel at facing new challenges, and continue to focus accomplishing the mission and taking care of soldiers. Soldiers take pride in what they do each and everyday, and women take no more or less pride in their work than men do.
Personally, knowing that I can make a difference in a young soldier's life is an incredible experience. I wear my uniform with pride and with the awareness that there are brothers and sisters in arms who have died wearing these colors. That pride is something I feel in the deepest part of me. It is a pride that I share with other soldiers who have served, whether they are women or men.
A Distinct Difference Between Female Soldiers and Male Soldiers
Many female soldiers, mothers or not, love the military life, and love serving their nation, just as many male soldiers do. So what is different about women soldiers' lives in the military?
Whether we want to admit it or not, women across all professions still shoulder the bulk of childcare responsibilities, and military life is no different. When female soldiers feel they are able to balance home and work life, their job satisfaction is high. When they are unable to achieve balance, job satisfaction is low. In an ideal world, all women would be able to balance home and work, and that would include women in the military. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and I can say with certainty that while women get into and stay in the military for the same reason that men do, women get out of the military for a more specifically female issue: the impact on their families.
I seriously considered getting out of the military only twice. The first was just weeks after my first daughter was born. She was a fussy baby, colicky and demanding, and I was exhausted. My husband had been deployed to Iraq and I was alone. I thought that there was no way I was going to be able to stay up with her at night, get up each morning to drop her off at daycare by 5:30 a.m., and not to see her again until 5:30 or later that evening.
But I stayed. I had many reasons for staying, but mostly, I stayed because of the incredible support from the unit I served with. When I came to work with dark shadows beneath my eyes, either from crying over missing my husband, or because the baby would not latch, my co-workers didn't baby me; they made me laugh instead. They kept me busy and challenged me instead of pushing me into a corner to cope alone. They went out of the way to keep me on the team and make me feel needed. I don't know that I would have stayed had it not been for the members of the C4 Test Directorate. They were my family when I was alone, and they are one of the reasons behind my commission and my continued military service. With their help, I was able to get through a dark time, and emerge at a place where I could see the value in continued service to the Army.
I seriously considered leaving the Army for the second time quite recently, upon my return from Iraq. My oldest would scream at the top of her lungs, throwing things, for no real reason except that she didn't know what to do with the emotions inside her. Mommy and Daddy were home finally, but for how long? Add the stress of moving from Maine back to Texas, leaving their grandmother who had taken care of them for a year, changing schools and rules. We were all on edge, and there was no Grammy here to help us take the edge off or give the kids any stability while we made the transition back to life as a family.
We've struggled through. I've been fortunate to have a commander who has been incredibly supportive, and who has enabled me to achieve that elusive balance between work and family; I am more grateful than he will ever know. Once more, my ability to be part of the team, useful and empowered to make a difference, has counterbalanced the struggles with coming home from Iraq. Because I still feel like I can make a difference, and my family is slowly making it through this transition, the dark times have not lasted this time either.
Other women go through these struggles alone, without a partner to help make life-altering decisions. And whether they stay in the military, or they leave, depends on the answers they find within themselves in the middle of the night.
Army life is not easy, and no one expects it to be. It is because of the challenges that accompany service that the pride instilled within is so hard won and held in such high regard. Women join the military for the same reasons as men, but often stay or go depending on the impact on their families. I stay because I have been enabled to make a difference. I stay because the joy that I felt at reuniting with my children has not diminished, no matter the tantrums they throw. I hope that my daughters will one day look at mommy, see a strong woman they can look up to, and understand that their mommy had to sacrifice, just like any soldier would.
Army First Lieutenant and Author
Final Thoughts on Women and War »
Women in the Military: What do Women Get from the Military? »
Mothers in the Military: Punishing Mothers Who Serve »
Sex and the Military Woman: Female Soldiers Are Not Just Victims »
Women in Combat is a Moot Point »
Improved Veteran Educational Benefits »
After Your Soldier Returns: The Challenges of a Military Marriage »
Being Some Soldier's Mom »
Stuck in Place: Struggling Through My Husband's Return »
The Tradition of the Christmas Tree »