Veteran, Potential Recruit Reflect on Women in the Military

Female Marine infantry students hike during patrol week near Camp Geiger, N.C., in October 2013. (TYLER L. MAIN/U.S. MARINE CORPS)
Female Marine infantry students hike during patrol week near Camp Geiger, N.C., in October 2013. (TYLER L. MAIN/U.S. MARINE CORPS)

GILLETTE, Wyo. -- Boot camp can be a wake-up call for anyone.

A life suddenly thrown into strict, regimented formation and commanders barking orders like taskmasters can be tough to adjust to. When Bernie Anderson got to Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1972 for boot camp, the experience was much bigger and bolder than what Anderson was used to on a small farm in Wisconsin.

But it also presented a different challenge for Anderson, a minority in the military, especially for 1972. That's because Bernie, short for Bernadine, was one of a select few women in the U.S. Marine Corps more than 40 years ago.

At that time, women in the military were almost entirely relegated to either medical or administrative roles. The idea that a woman could be serving on the front lines with their male soldier counterparts was out of consideration.

Now more than four decades later, a decision by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has opened all combat positions to women at the same time a U.S. House of Representatives bill is making its way through Congress that would require women to register for Selective Service.

That evolution of women in U.S. military service is a welcome change, Anderson said.

Anderson' career

Anderson worked as a diary clerk for the Marine Corps data entry facility in Arlington, Virginia, from 1972-1974. The facility overlooked the Pentagon and the culture shock was immediately apparent.

"It was different, just a whole different country for me," Anderson said. "Everything was so much bigger and the (large) number of people there."

Then 18, Anderson had recently graduated from high school and the military, especially at that time in the closing stages of the Vietnam War, was something she always expected to do.

Her family could fill out a military convention. One brother served in the Air Force, another in the National Guard and still another served in the Navy. A couple of cousins served as midshipmen and two uncles served in the Air Force.

Serving their country is just what the Anderson family does.

"It was a job," she said. "It was an opportunity to get out and see the world."

The structured lifestyle wasn't too difficult for Anderson to get acclimated to, as she was used to getting up early to milk the cows. She lived in a barracks full of women for the two years she served.

In Arlington, she was one of three women working in the office, where she would input military personnel files in a computer and take care of some payroll duties. In her office also were five men: one lieutenant, one sergeant and three other officers.

Times are changing

The roles for women in the military were clearly and narrowly defined then. Even 20 years later, the United States' stance remained virtually the same.

President Bill Clinton reviewed the policy on women in the military in 1994 and the Department of Defense concluded that since women were excluded from front-line combat positions, their exclusion from Selective Service was justifiable.

However, the decision also read that policies regarding women would need to be reviewed periodically because the role of women in the military has continued to expand.

In December, Carter made a historical decision when he announced that all combat positions would be open to women, ranging from front-line infantry to commanders to specialists.

"There will be no exceptions," Carter said at a news conference in December. "They'll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They'll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men."

There are now an estimated 201,400 women in the U.S. military spanning all four major active-duty branches. That's about 15.5 percent of the active-duty military force.

Just two months after Carter's announcement, two Republican congressmen took the historic change one step farther. Duncan Hunter, R-California, and Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, both military veterans, introduced a bill that would require all women ages 18-26 to register for Selective Service, the same as men.

That change is a welcome one for Anderson.

"I've always thought that everyone should serve in some way," Anderson said. "It builds patriotism, makes people more responsible and teaches people about our country and how to assist our country. I can't see why women can't be there. If they have the training, they can do it."

But Anderson did have one request of those making the laws: Don't change the entrance requirements.

"If women will be serving, do not lower the standards for them," she said. "They should have to do the same thing. If (the standard is) to lift 100 pounds, they need to do it. Because otherwise, it's not equal, not the same."

A young woman's view

If and when the bill is passed, millions of women living in the United States would need to retroactively register for the draft if they are between the ages of 18 and 26 and meet the other qualifications listed currently for men.

One of those women is 18-year-old Kinsey Brisko, a senior at Campbell County High School. Born in the late 1990s into a country continually pushing for equal rights for all, Brisko has been saturated with equal rights talk most of her life.

"I believe men and women should be treated equal," she said. "But women also have different roles and men have different roles. I think women can be just as equally qualified for anything."

Even with the modern age focus on equality, there are still things Brisko is judged on for being a woman. First, at 5-foot-11, she said she's judged on her height a lot, especially when someone finds out she doesn't play basketball. Volleyball is her sport of choice instead.

Secondly, her career choice is one that traditionally has been dominated by men: engineering.

"I was the only girl in my engineering class," she said. "I felt I had to learn things a little faster (than the boys). There's a certain test at the end of the year and I felt I needed to do really well on it to prove myself and that I'm able to do this."

The prospect of having to register for the draft is foreign for Brisko, something she had never considered having to do. But the military isn't foreign to her. She has thought about enlisting, either in a medical role or her career choice of engineering. But the possibility of having to serve on the front lines if a draft is instituted is one that had never entered her mind before.

"It scares me," she said. "Since the beginning, it's always been based on men. Over the years, they're the ones that have had to do that. I think it's amazing equality-wise. But this is a big change and it might take years to do it."

Can they do it?

From the military standpoint, the issue has come up several times before and commanders and military personnel have such a wide variety of opinions and arguments about it. Even at American Legion Post 42 in Gillette, members have different views.

Paul Woessner and Jerry Hight said that equal rights for women are of paramount importance and there's no question they can complete the same tasks as men. But, in the end, the two have widely different views on how that can be accomplished.

"Let me make it very clear: I am totally in favor of women in the draft," said Woessner, a Navy veteran. "I had a lot of female friends who also were in the Navy. I see no reasons why we shouldn't have a draft for both women and men. We have to have equal positions in the process of defending the United States. If there were only jobs for men, it wouldn't matter. But right now, there are just as many jobs for men and women."

Hight disagrees -- not on principle, but based on traditional roles.

"I understand the way this country is right now, but at the same time, I don't think they should be put into a position where they would have to fight in those cities in Iraq," Hight said. "You don't have to put girls on the front line. They can support the war from anywhere. They don't need to be in the blood and the guts, so to speak. I don't think that's for women. Maybe that's chauvinist, but I don't mean it to be."

Hight said he worries about a male soldier's focus in a unit where he would also be naturally protective of female soldiers.

"There are women who are just as good as men at shooting and everything else, that's for sure," he said. "Look at it this way: if you and I are sitting in a trench and there's a woman between us, our concern is going to be to keep her safer than we're going to be."

Anderson said she understands that argument and doesn't refute it. That's simply "a fact of life." However, she said that with training, discipline and attitude, that can be dealt with and overcome.

Brisko also said she could see how male soldiers may harbor that concern, but said she wouldn't see it as a problem moving forward.

"I think men have a natural instinct to protect women," she said. "But I think if women are fighting for their lives, their instincts and their abilities can be just as good as men's are."

If the bill passes in Congress, the evolution of women in the military and, by extension, society will continue to expand. As that happens, young women like Brisko will be ready to prove themselves again.

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