Remembering the progress and pain of women’s military service

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On Memorial Day it is essential for Americans to remember the profound sacrifices women have made in service to our country and why equality under the Constitution for women servicemembers must be compulsory. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is designed to guarantee identical legal rights for men and women regardless of sex as it seeks to end legal distinctions between us. 

The ERA says, “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” In all matters legal, equal means equal. As an African American woman and a commissioned officer in 1977, my military journey commenced at Fort McClellan, in Alabama, before serving in South Korea, Panama, Fort. Hood, Texas and at the Pentagon. I also spent reserve time in Indiana, Kentucky and Colorado.

{mosads}Women take the oath to serve, “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic.” Idealism aside, I served my country proudly, with honor and distinction beside others who paid the ultimate sacrifice. I fought to protect and defend our freedoms regardless of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression or disability. Not only on Memorial Day but every day, the words of writer Cynthia Shoshana Ozick renders me speechless, “We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”

When I looked in the mirror, I saw the epitome of a “STRAC Soldier” who was Skilled, Tough, Ready, Around the Clock. I was disciplined and professional. On the surface, I presented the dignified, uniformed military standard from my head to my highly shined boots. On the inside, it mattered not whether we were males or females. In 2019, it shouldn’t be relevant either. There were around 50 in my Military Police Officer Basic Leadership Course where I was one of seven women. Another African American woman could pass as white, and she did. Though, I did not realize she was black until several years later. 

The Women’s Army Corp had been deactivated a few years before I was commissioned, and our class was among the first to have women branched into Combat Support Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). Most men’s resistance to our military service was palpable. The early years of integrating women into America’s armed forces were difficult because some of the men did not want to yield their bastion of an elite “band of brothers.”

On one assignment, a senior officer asked me, “How did a black gal like you get promoted to major?” While serving in Panama, my senior rater propositioned me sexually and used graphic language. When I learned the opportunity to become a battalion commander, I was told, “We’re going to give (an advancement opportunity) to so-and-so, because that’s a ‘pretty rough’ unit and I’m not sure you can handle it or that the troops will accept a black woman in charge.”

My career was not all doom and gloom. There were, from time to time, bright moments in an otherwise misogynistic tunnel. I also remember hearing some men scolding others who had made lewd or sexist remarks. Some commanders chose me for jobs over the objections of other senior officers because they knew I was qualified.

In one assignment, I ruffled the feathers of a male GS-13 level colleague who worked in the unit. When I tried to revamp logistics policies at the Division Level, he cautioned me not to cross him or there would be consequences to pay. My penalty came in the form of an unwarranted Mediocre Officer Evaluation (OER), which stalled opportunities for career promotion in the future. Even though the odds were stacked against me, by the grace of God and influential mentors, I managed to ascend to the rank of lieutenant colonel. 

Women need constitutional equality. For increasing numbers of military women, freedom is not only a state of mind. I am heartened to see the historic 34 black females of the nearly 1,000 cadets graduating in the 2019 class at West Point. On par with men, our liberties and autonomy must be respected holistically because we are not servants or slaves in a patriarchal nightmare. My experiences were not unique for women that entered military service in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Though, I am humbled to stand with those who paved the way for us to rise through the ranks and become a full bird U.S. Army colonel, general officer, non-commissioned officer (NCO) and senior NCO. Unfortunately, little has changed for women in America’s 21st century military.

During this Memorial Day weekend, we remember the many combat heroes lost in the service to the United States. We also pay homage to those female “sheroes” we served alongside and others in active service who persevere by enduring public humiliation, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and still others who were overlooked for merited advancements. Some women simply chose to serve their country in military careers or inadvertently forged new paths for gender equality and fairness in job assignments. Some women managed to retire before the #MeToo Movement, while others were forced out early because of their perceived or actual sexuality. Others had the courage to reject overt advances by senior NCOs or officers, and too often were forced out when they spoke up about discrimination that was pervasive in some U.S. military units.

The good news is, things are changing for the better — just not fast enough. I remember those military women who helped me as a young lieutenant and beyond. I hope and pray that I’ve lived up to the investment that they made in my life and career with their words of wisdom, support, and yes, even correction.

As we honor our “sheroes” of the past and praise the courage of those still fighting for women’s equality, I ask everyone to remember our obligation to those women coming after us and never, ever surrender. As the second decade of the 21st century ends, I challenge us all to continue the struggle for gender equality and equity in every field  — including America’s military. HOOAH!

Pat Spearman, DBA, is a Nevada state senator representing Senate District 1 and a retired lieutenant colonel (U.S. Army).

Tags Memorial Day Military National security Pat Spearman

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