Combat strong

  • Published
  • By Barbara Zilonis
  • Battle Management Directorate
At a recent meeting the topic of women in the Air Force came up and I heard someone say, "I think it's unfair that a woman cannot be deployed if she is pregnant."

For a moment, I thought I misunderstood the statement and expected some clarification. But there was none. I glanced back at the young captain and said, "When I was in the service, women could not be pregnant - period."

Curious looks stared at me from around the room. I explained that I joined the Women's Army Corps in 1971. I told him that basic training for women was entirely female and that the rules were different.

If you could march, you passed the physical grade. We had a class on how to apply makeup for work. We had a gas mask which did wonders (when it worked) during our one-day out-in-the-field combat where we tended to the simulated wounded and carried bodies on stretchers in the midst of smoke and tear gas attacks. I gave a few other anecdotes that suggested 40 years ago was ancient history. I think, that day, sitting in that room, we felt great strides have been made for women in the military.

Because this meeting was held to discuss what we could do for Women's Equality Day, I thought it would be interesting to find out exactly how things have changed for women in the military. I distinctly remember three months into my enlistment, men and women received the same pay for the same rank and military occupational specialty. A little later, schools would open to women in other military specialties. I was one of the first women trained at the Defense Language Institute West Coast Branch in Monterey, Calif. and the first WAC with orders to NATO in Naples, Italy.

Today basic training is co-ed. Moreover women no longer just march but receive some serious physical conditioning. In 1973, the first four Navy women were chosen for flight training. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed legislation permitting women to enter the military academies. In December 1990, the Air Force integrated all basic military squadrons and in 1997, flights were combined and men and women compete today in all aspects of training.

In 1994 additional specialties opened to women. Only seven jobs remained closed until recent changes opened up all specialties, including combat to women. However, with all the changes, women in the Air Force only make up 15 to 20 percent of leadership positions. In 2012, a female was promoted to the rank of 4-star general. Also the first female fighter pilot became a wing commander in May 2012 - Colonel Jeannie Leavitt, an F-15 Strike Eagle combat pilot who flew 300 hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the not too distant future, the United States may have the first female Navy Seal and Army Ranger by 2016.

All of this seems to suggest that much progress has been made for women's equality in today's services. But it seems to me to be a long-time coming. Thinking once again about deployment to combat areas, I felt the need to research the women who served previously in the other wars and conflicts. A few facts stood out to me when I did the research. For example, during the Civil War, women were not allowed to fight, but it is estimated that approximately 400 women disguised themselves as men and went to war. Also, due to the heavy male causalities in World War I, women became "necessary" and "indispensable" as nurses and food suppliers to those on the front line. More than 25,000 women served in Europe in World War I. More than 13,000 U.S. women enlisted in the U.S. Navy doing clerical work. World War II once again saw its influx of women into the military. Almost 400,000 women served in and with the armed forces.

On a website memorializing women's contributions to combat, it is written about World War II that " the end of the war, there were few noncombatant jobs in which women did not serve, including positions that hadn't even existed when the war began--positions brought about by scientific and technological advances to aid the war effort. They were in every service branch and were assigned to every combat theater. Nurses and WACs served overseas throughout the war."

In Vietnam, more than 11,000 military women served in 'Nam - close to 90 percent nurses. Eight women's names are on the Vietnam Memorial. In the first Persian Gulf War 33,000 women were deployed. Six women died of SCUD missile defense. Today 142 women have deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait and have lost their lives in service.

After further research, I was amazed by the number of women who throughout history were willing to sacrifice everything for this country's freedom. I am sure that many of them, whether single, married, mothers or soon to be mothers, did not consider what they would lose, rather what would be gained by their service in the military.

To all of these women, I want to say you have shown us what it means to be "Combat Strong."