Women in Combat — Semper Fi
Women have recently gained the right to obtain combat assignments in our armed forces. Combat in 2013 is very different than it was in, say, the Civil War or WWI, or even in WWII or Vietnam. Ground troops were assembled in large groups and sent out into a field, beach, hillside, jungle, swamp, desert or frozen tundra to kill and be killed by a large group of guys from the other country. There aren’t very many countries left in the world that have big armies they can assemble against us. We kill with drones and bombs dropped from the sky, mostly. Our current conflicts have American troops being killed by lone suicide bombers and roadside detonations. Traditional “combat” has devolved into something more impersonal. Recent conflicts had our infantrymen working on “winning hearts and minds” much of the time.
My service number is W722375. Yes, I am so old that I was in the US Marines back in the days before the social security number was the service number. If I am ever captured by an enemy of the United States, I will recite this number over and over. The W in my number stands for Woman, I’m pretty sure. The differences and restrictions between military men and women in 1969 were very different from today.
My opinion has always been that unless women served in ALL the military jobs and were subject to Selective Service registration the same as men are, we would never have true equality of opportunity and pay. I still believe in equality, but now I wonder …. will we ever evolve enough as human beings so that combat between societies no longer exists? Maybe when the oil is finally gone, or when the earth is nearly completely covered by water and all countries are tropical or frigid? Will we evolve then?
The people who die in wars aren’t the ones who decide to have a war. Not the soldiers, not the civilians. Corporate chieftains and the politicians they purchase are the folks who decide that it’s time to start killing off citizens, soldiers and civilians, men and women, old and young.
Like many teenagers who join the military, my opportunities in my little Florida town were limited. Money and transportation were hard to come by. I needed a job I could walk to each day. Plus…. the US Marine uniform is beautiful. The rich khaki material, the forest green stripes, the red piping. The ribbons worn with pride, the sharp creases and the shining footwear…. a disorganized, unemployed teenager sees hope for his (or her) own future just being in the presence of such squared-away confidence. I signed the contract, eager to start my new life of fitness, confidence, knowledge and beauty.
I had to lose about fifteen pounds before I could go to boot camp, so I was good and hungry when I got there. Lunch was the highlight of the day, but I thought this would be fine because now that I was a Marine, I’d be running a few miles every day, getting lots of exercise, marching, shooting, and would become buff and sexy! Hua! That’s what I thought…
Instead, we learned how to do laundry and to take it in off the line at oh-five-hundred (that would be 5 am) each morning, nice and damp for ironing. Ironing, one of the most-practiced skills. We learned to iron perfect creases with spray starch on our cheap cotton boot camp work uniforms. We learned to shine shoes brilliantly. We learned to wash the wood floors and baseboards with little white rags and water. We learned to strip floor wax, put on new wax and control the hundred pound buffer in the wide hallways.
All Marines have classes in Marine Corps history and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Women Marines, in 1969, also had classes in how to walk properly, actually balancing books on our heads. We learned how to smoke in public and how to apply eyeliner. Red lipstick was considered part of a Woman Marine’s uniform and we could only escape the red lipstick for religious reasons. My boot camp platoon had several miraculous holy conversions during the first week. With uniform skirts, no bare legs were allowed, pantyhose were required year-round. White gloves were part of our uniform as well. We had to keep several pairs on hand due to forgetting we had that damn red lipstick on….. Some of us mumbled about discrimination against women, but kept it to ourselves.
I started gaining that fifteen pounds back on the first day. We had gym three days a week where we practiced sit-ups, push-ups and chin-ups (or chin-up in my case). We were required to perform a certain number of these exercises and run one mile to graduate from boot camp. So my idea about the buff and sexy……. never happened.
One day our drill instructor passed an unloaded M-16 around the classroom. We each held it for a second, then passed it on the next girl. That was my only exposure to weapons while I was a US Marine in 1969 during the Vietnam War. Some of us, seeing the men jogging in groups, chanting songs, having weapons training, wearing their comfortable green BDU pants and green T shirts (looking very buff and sexy!)…. muttered to ourselves about discrimination against women.
Thirty years later I was a short, fat, middle-aged lady working for the US Army in Germany as a civilian government employee. I was required to go to Bosnia to provide some computer support for our troops there. I had to attend a one-week, boot-camp-like training class called Styx training, required before I could go.
I had to wear the green BDU uniform, helmet, flak vest and black combat boots at all times. I had to qualify at the shooting range with a 9mm handgun. (I did, with the lowest score possible and a gun that jammed with every second shot.) We had training in cultural awareness and how to speak to the press (try not to). We learned how to pat down a prisoner for weapons. I had to sleep in a barracks, stand watch, and practice running away from imaginary snipers. I huffed and puffed along, lagging behind all the young soldiers and civilians in my Styx platoon. If there had been a real sniper, I would have been a goner.
Lunch was still a highlight in everyone’s day, so I had to run for the mess hall if I wanted any food. The tall young people in my Styx platoon could all march and run much faster than me. There I was puffing along at the tail end of my platoon, begging them not to eat all the biscuits. I lost eight pounds during training. Eight pounds in a week! Finally, thirty years later, I got all the things I wanted from the US military, ever since I first signed up in 1969! Running. Marching. Shooting. Weight loss!
Women in combat? About time. We’ve come a long way, baby! Semper Fi.
Linda, what a life you’ve led! Your comments are the most insightful I’ve read about why women should be given equal opportunity in the military. I just swore in our first permanent female Village Manager, and knew that this was a breakthrough in this field as well, where so few women have the opportunity to lead as public servants. As they said during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment: “A Woman’s Place is Everywhere!”
Wow, I am blown away with this post. I had no idea what it was like. Only had the movies which obviously were nothing like the real thing…ironing? Thanks so much for this one Linda. Hope you have sent this on for publication elsewhere. Julane
Very interesting read! Thanks for sharing your memories of that time in your life and what an experience!
This subject is one of those don’t-get-me-started things. It’s about time that women have the “right” to obtain combat assignments since women have been on the front lines of life since the first gasp of mankind. It’s always amazed me that our society is so slow to give to women the same right of choice that men have. To acknowledge a woman’s right to carry a gun or carry a diaper bag or both. To make decisions about our lives according to our own hopes and dreams and desires. To have opportunities based on our abilities not our gender. So instead of kudos I say, “about damn time.”
Thanks, Donna. We are the same generation, saying ‘about damn time’ since 1970!! Right on, sister!