Op-Ed: Yes, I Serve Too

FILE -- A Pfc. gives helpful hints to her teammate holding four excess gunpowder bags that weren’t needed for the three-increment charge during live-fire training on the M119A3 howitzer, Fort Sill, March 1, 2016. (U.S. Army photo/Cindy McIntyre)
FILE -- A Pfc. gives helpful hints to her teammate holding four excess gunpowder bags that weren’t needed for the three-increment charge during live-fire training on the M119A3 howitzer, Fort Sill, March 1, 2016. (U.S. Army photo/Cindy McIntyre)

Emily Solberg is a Civil Affairs sergeant with the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade based out of Riverdale, Maryland. She is also a Marine wife and freelance writer who enjoys writing about the trials and travails of motherhood. You can find her on Instagram at @emilysolberg.

"Thank you for your service."

I can't tell you how many times I've heard those exact five words while out in public with my husband -- sitting at dinner, heading to a birthday ball, or doing something totally mundane like grocery shopping or getting the oil changed.

It's hard to know what prompts it. Sometimes, it's the haircut. Sometimes, the uniform. Sometimes, the USAA credit card.

Particularly when we travel outside of where he's stationed in Washington, D.C., where military members are a dime a dozen, he attracts a lot of attention from well-meaning civilians. It doesn't hurt that he's a tall, fit, handsome Marine who looks especially dashing in his dress blues.

He's always a little bashful, though, when someone approaches us to thank him. And not just because he's a polite, humble man. It's because the woman right next to him ... his wife ... me ...

I serve, too.

I'm not referring to my role as a military spouse, although that kind of service is also honorable and equally deserving of gratitude. I do hold down the fort when he's away; I put out the fires, kiss the boo-boos, and keep the house (mostly) standing.

But, like him, I also put on a uniform. Like him, I took the oath and signed on the dotted line. I'm married to my husband, and we're both married to Uncle Sam.

"My wife serves as well. She's in the Army."

People always look genuinely surprised.

"Oh! Well thank you for your service, too," they stutter, as an afterthought.

I conclude this reaction is due to one of two reasons: I'm a woman, which is still the exception rather than the rule in the military; or I don't fit the "typical" mold of a female service member.

In the case of the former, I can't really take offense. Women aren't well represented in the military, period.

Are things better than they used to be? Sure. According to the Pew Research Center, women make up approximately 15 percent of Defense Department active-duty personnel, up from 11 percent in 1990.

But that's still a considerable minority. Particularly in certain branches (I'm looking at you, Marine Corps), female service members remain somewhat of an anomaly -- I can tell this from the stares I get any time I walk into the grocery store in uniform.

Yes, we can now serve in any MOS as long as we meet the standards. But not everyone is a huge fan of this change in policy. True, we have women who have earned the elite distinction of Army Ranger, yet doubt lingers.

The very motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs says it all: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan." Him. His.

Sure, there weren't a whole lot of women in the service when Abe Lincoln gave his second Inaugural address, but I think it's high time for an update.

In the case of the latter, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what a typical woman in the Army is supposed to look like, exactly (outside of the grooming standards dictated in AR 670-1, of course).

If I were to conform to some of the ridiculous stereotypes, it might entail cropped hair; ill-fitting, masculine clothes; and flitting rumors of lesbianism. A picture of Demi Moore in "G.I. Jane" comes to mind. Personally, I think she looked hot in that movie, buzz cut or no.

Here's the thing: Being feminine and being a badass are not mutually exclusive.

It's not uncommon for me to curl my hair and wear a fancy dress to dinner on Friday night, then wake up at 0430 on Saturday to throw on my ACUs and head out the door with ACH in tow, ready for the rifle range.

As a reservist, I walk this line all the time. I like makeup and looking pretty. I also like M16s and MREs (just kidding about the last part -- who the heck likes anything in an MRE besides the candy and peanut butter?).

Regardless of which it is, people can't seem to reconcile the two: I am a woman, and I am a soldier.

Just the other day, I went to the chiropractor for an adjustment and asked if they accepted Tricare. Unfortunately, the receptionist told me, they did not. I went ahead and started filling out paperwork anyway. I got to the end of the form, which did mention a discount for service members only. When I brought it back up to her, I made a point to ask about it.

"I saw you offer a discount for service members, is that right?"

"Yes, we do ... " She answered as if she had no clue why I'd want to know.

I reached for my wallet. "Great, in that case, here's my ID."

"Oh! Are you the one ...?" Implying she hadn't thought it was me who served.

Somehow, I don't think she would have asked my husband that.

The fact of the matter is, we already have to work harder than our male counterparts to get the recognition we deserve. This isn't because we aren't afforded opportunities or because our commanders are misogynist a**holes, it's because we have to prove that we don't need any special treatment to succeed.

I've worked so hard in my military career to dispel this stigma -- that a pretty face and a little bit of feminine wile can get me a leg up. The stigma that I can get out of doing some things because I'm a woman; the stigma that I can get away with some things because I'm a woman.

But the change has to start at home. It has to start in society as a whole, and with a shift in mindset that allows for the possibility that women don't fit into perfectly shaped boxes depending on their appearance or their choice of career.

For the possibility that a woman in the military can be pretty yet not use it as leverage.

For the possibility that she can meet and exceed the same standards that males are held to, but still enjoy the chance to dress up and have the door held for her on a date night.

For the possibility that when a military couple is out to dinner, it might not be the man who serves his country.

So going forward, let's try not to assume so much, shall we? Because we all know what happens when we do that.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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