Today on The Cycle: Undaunted

Updated
9780451239228_large_Undaunted
9780451239228_large_Undaunted

On January 23, 2013 Pentagon Chief Leon Panetta lifted a ban that prohibited women from serving in combat opening up thousands of front line positions. Thus, the groundbreaking rule that overturned the 1994 ban allows the women that are currently serving to be on the front lines. However, before this ban was lifted military women were still leading through both their service and back at home.

Tanya Biank, author of Undaunted: The Real Story of America’s Servicewomen in Today’s Military takes you through the life of four different types of military women. There is “the General”, who is the Marine Corps first Hispanic female general with a feisty attityde and more than three decade of service under her belt. “The Platoon Leader” a 22 year old leading troops on the front lines in Afghanistan, “The Drill Instructor” a diva with a tough attitude, and “The Iron Major” a brainy redhead who outthinks her colleagues and left two kids and a troubled marriage at home.

Undaunted is a story of the women’s courage on the battlefield and at home and how they pave the road for all the others who come after them.

Be sure to tune in for the full conversation at 3:40p.m. and check out an excerpt from her book below.

            From Undaunted: The Real Story of America’s Servicewomen in Today’s Military by Tanya Biank. Published by arrangement with NAL Caliber, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Tanya Biank, 2013.

Introduction


Lieutenant Candice Frost and I first met on a scorching late-summer afternoon twelve years ago at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I was a military reporter at the time for the local paper, the Fayetteville Observer, and was writing a story about servicewomen in the 82nd Airborne Division, an almost all-male unit whose mission is to parachute behind enemy lines, seize airfields, stake out ground, and pave the way for follow-on forces. At that time only 3 percent of the division’s 15,000 paratroopers were women.

I came on post to interview the lieutenant because she was breaking new ground in the Army. For the first time in its history, the 82nd, an elite fighting force, had a female soldier assigned to an infantry regiment: Candice had recently been named as the assistant intelligence officer for the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment—the only woman in the 4,000-member brigade.

As I sat across from Candice in a shaded office, the thin twenty-four-year-old redhead, two years out of West Point, sat up straight with an earnest look on her rosy-cheeked face, like a precocious student onstage about to win the spelling bee. It was evident that Candice had things to accomplish and dragons to slay, and she’d have no time for knuckleheads who got in her way.

“What if the unit jumps into combat but doesn’t take you with them?” I asked.

“If you put me in this slot,” Candice said, looking at me intensely with her blue eyes, “I’m going to war.” It was easier for me to imagine Candice at my door selling Girl Scout cookies than with a helmet on her head, but her looks were clearly deceiving.

“Hell hath no fury if they don’t send me,” she continued. “They had enough faith to put me here. I am willing and able.”

I scribbled in my notebook and continued my questioning. “What about soldiers who don’t think you should be in an infantry unit?”

“The guys that have the biggest mouths, I say, come on, let’s run.” Candice was a marathoner, and being a good runner in the 82nd was as important as being a good shooter. “That’s the great equalizer.”

After we said our good-byes, I realized I hadn’t expected her bluntness. But in a division where the male ego was as high as the operational tempo, I figured that attitude would serve her well.

On the last Sunday of August, on the front page of the Observer, the story ran with a headshot photo of Candice, her face covered in camouflage paint, lying prone and aiming an M4 at the camera, and when Candice arrived at work Monday morning, someone had cut out and taped her picture to the door of her office and everywhere else in the unit. She took the attention, however it was intended, in stride.

A few weeks later Candice got married to a fellow officer, an infantry lieutenant named Will O’Brien. Two days after her first wedding anniversary, planes hijacked by terrorists struck the TwinTowers and the Pentagon. The next decade put the American military on an unprecedented path of war service.

Candice and I would not talk again until ten years later. I was looking for the right mix of subjects for a book I wanted to write about women in the military. A mutual military friend referred me to a Major Candice O’Brien, now a mother of two getting ready to deploy for her second tour to Afghanistan.

“I think you interviewed me a long time ago at FortBragg for a story about women in the 82nd,” Candice said when I contacted her. “Do you remember?”

How could I forget?

Candice is just one of many women whose service in the military has made a lasting impression on me. In the course of reporting, I’ve seen them in action, while sharing a tent in the Middle East, on board a boat in the South China Sea, along the DMZ in Korea, and on the side of a steep jungle mountain in Vietnam. We’ve shared stories, as well as granola bars and toilet paper.

More recently, as an Army wife living on military posts, I’ve gotten to know servicewomen off duty as neighbors, wives, mothers, and volunteers. I’ve sat beside them in church pews, on playground swings, at memorial services, and formal military balls. Over the last twenty-two years, I’ve had the privilege of pinning on my sister Maria’s rank, as she rose from lieutenant to colonel, and I’ve been fortunate to have her as a neighbor at three duty stations, including our current one, where she is a brigade commander at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

I’ve come to recognize the issues these women face—professional and private, large and small, sad and funny—and I’ve admired their commitment and courage.

The purpose of this book is to give a full picture of military women, from the junior ranks to the highest echelons. Juggling marriage, motherhood, and the military may not be dramatic, compared to war service; and grappling with less tangible concerns about femininity, gender roles, and discriminatory labels may seem trivial when held up against true physical dangers. But even for women who choose a warrior profession, these are challenges that may affect serious decisions and have life-changing consequences. They are also the issues most servicewomen deal with daily and often out of public view. It is important, therefore, to shed light on these women’s personal lives, including their behind-the-scenes struggles and insecurities. These are the things that give new meaning to their courage on and off the battlefield.

To be sure, servicewomen have long confronted problems of hazing, trying to belong to an old-boys’ club, sexual harassment, dating, marriage problems, pregnancy, separation from children, questions about life goals, career trajectories, and self-worth. But today the context for all this is very different. The women are part of a military that little resembles the armed forces of the past.

Though women had been employed in the armed services since the Revolutionary War, they could not exceed 2 percent of the active-duty force and couldn’t be promoted beyond the ranks of lieutenant colonel or commander until Congress changed the law in 1967. Throughout the 1980s, half the jobs in the military excluded women. Then, in 1994, the Department of Defense did away with its direct-combat-risk rule and replaced it with a women’s assignment policy. That policy said: “Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignments to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”

Because the soldier’s workplace is the battlefield, in many ways Washington’s “combat ban” remained the final frontier on employment gender discrimination. Yet the military has a history of effecting social change by employing women and giving them opportunities they would not have found elsewhere. That hasn’t happened without controversy. In the nineties, as public debate raged over women and combat, senior female officers and congresswomen like Pat Schroeder of the House Armed Services Committee argued for across-the-board equality, while male military leaders and a number of lawmakers opposed such changes. The argument to keep women out of combat units centered on a number of issues: lack of strength, endurance, and temperament; lack of mixed-gender accommodations; a disruption to unit cohesion; and a distraction to fighting capability. Lawmakers were also concerned about the treatment of captured female soldiers and pilots and how it would play out on the evening news.

Events over the last decade essentially made many of these points moot.

In February 2012, after a year of reviews ordered by Congress, the Pentagon changed the policy to allow women to be “officially” assigned to combat battalions. It was like finally giving a team jersey to a player who had been hitting home runs on the field for years. In essence, the revision was catching up to the reality on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women were already serving in the battalions as intelligence and signal officers through a policy loophole that “attached” them to the units.

Today there are 194,000 women serving on active duty—14.5 percent of 1.4 million troops—plus 80,000 in the Reserves and 65,000 in the National Guard. There are 1.8 million female veterans in the United States. Since 9/11 more than 250,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, making them 11 percent of the fighting force. Many have served overseas multiple times, leaving today’s generation of servicewomen with more war service than either their fathers or grandfathers.

In a great irony, female troops are often needed in near-frontline situations in Muslim countries, where they can defuse culturally tense interactions that involve local women. But this—and the fact that they serve as truck drivers, as medics, and as military police—has also placed them close to combat or other wartime dangers. More than 145 women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 860 have been wounded.

Yet you can’t measure the lives of military women through statistics. The military is not just a job but a way of life. It has always been a place of paradox, most evident by its curious mix of traditional men and unconventional women drawn to its ranks. The women who see the military as an attractive career are constantly pressed to prove themselves in a profession outside society’s norms for women. They believe they can protect, defend, fight, and lead, despite conventional wisdom.

In Undaunted I explore in depth the lives of four active-duty servicewomen, all of whom are leaders and professional standouts, over a crucial few years of their careers that take them from beginnings and hard work to choices, changes, and growth. It is not easy to achieve a dream in the military. Servicewomen come to their profession on different paths. Their experiences at Marine boot camp, airborne school, West Point or a military college like Norwich University, and advanced study at places like the School of Advanced Military Studies are critical components in developing their doctrinal, technical, and tactical expertise, which is key to professional development, and, ultimately, valuable in combat. Those settings, as well as posts in the United States and abroad, are an important aspect of these women’s stories.

It was vital to me to show these servicewomen as full human beings, beyond caricature. My intent is for the reader to walk away with an intimate understanding and appreciation of who these women are and what it takes to succeed as a woman in today’s military.

And who are they?

•The General: Brigadier General Angela Salinas is a feisty, five-foot-tall, fifty-four-year-old Marine with a firm handshake and more than thirty years of service. She is the Marine Corps’ first Hispanic female general. She battles naysayers and disinformation as a commander at an all-male institution while finding her identity as a general and fitting in at the apex.

It was important to me to have one of the main subjects of this book be a seasoned military woman with decades of service who got her start in a military that little resembles the one she serves in today. I found that and so much more in General Salinas.

•The Platoon Leader: Second Lieutenant Bergan Flannigan is a twenty-two-year-old, baby-faced introvert and newly minted officer who wanted to go to airborne school though she’d never been on an airplane. After playing Army for four years at a military college in Vermont, she finds herself leading troops on the front lines in Afghanistan, serving in the same military police company as her husband.

I first heard about Lieutenant Flannigan and her dramatic story through back channels. She had been a platoon leader in the battalion that my friend’s husband commanded at Fort Stewart, Georgia. I’d been told she was “tough” and not to expect much in the way of conversation. That turned out to be true. But I liked the idea of telling a platoon leader’s story in combat, and over time she got used to me and my endless questions. The military police have an incredibly dangerous worldwide mission, and Lieutenant Flannigan and her soldiers were in the thick of it on a daily basis in Afghanistan. I start her story much earlier, however, far from the hell of Afghanistan, in an idyllic spot in the mountains of Vermont at NorwichUniversity; showing Lieutenant Flannigan’s life as a cadet underscores the innocence of her early years and gives context and depth to her leadership responsibilities in a war zone.

•The Drill Instructor: Sergeant Amy Stokley is a “diva in boots.” The twenty-five-year-old has a martial arts black belt and earned a combat action ribbon in Iraq. She readies her voice for the day by screaming above her car stereo on the way to work at Parris Island. She loves to make recruits cry and does so while wearing false eyelashes, acrylic French-tipped nails, and lipstick. Spending 140 hours each week with her recruits, she has little time for a personal life and is resigned to being married to the corps.

The first time I called Sergeant Stokley, she spoke in a husky whisper. I could barely understand her.

“Do you have a cold?”

“No, ma’am,” she said. “I’ve been yelling all day.”

And so our relationship began.

When I arrived at Parris Island to do research, I realized she wasn’t kidding. Marine Corps drill instructors are a breed of their own, female drill instructors even more so, and I wanted one of the best. Sergeant Stokley had worked her way up from truck driver to drill instructor, and her story follows her path to the most revered position in the Marine Corps. Who was the woman beneath the Smokey Bear hat? I set to find out.

•The Iron Major: Major Candice O’Brien is the woman I interviewed a dozen years ago. A brainy thirty-three-year-old redhead who can outthink her fellow officers in the plans room and outrun them on the track, she is a hard-charging overachiever. But she was unprepared for what turns out to be combat on the home front. When she deploys to NATO headquarters in Afghanistan, she leaves behind two young children and a troubled marriage.

I was attracted to Major O’Brien’s story because she represented so many mothers in dual military marriages. How did she keep all the balls in the air? Can a military woman really have it all? During the writing of this book, her story unfolded in real time in ways neither of us could have predicted when she left for Afghanistan.

Their stories also counteract the perception that military women are cookie-cutter alike. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by their contradictions. General Salinas is tiny in stature, yet she founded and was the captain of her college’s women’s basketball team. Lieutenant Flannigan is a hard-charger, yet she loves her stuffed animals and took her favorites on deployment. Sergeant Stokley loved to “blast” her recruits, and she always made sure she looked damn good doing it. Major O’Brien could brief General Petraeus on counternarcotics in Afghanistan, but she was also captivated by the simple beauty of a sunflower outside the base perimeter.

The more I learned about these women, the more I wanted to know.

The positions these women hold bring them public praise but also private challenges and, for some, extraordinary scrutiny. Their stories, on American soil and abroad, are riveting in themselves. But even more, these four military women are emblematic of the issues facing so many U.S. servicewomen today, from marriage and motherhood to career trajectories and life goals. The subjects of this book are unforgettable individuals, but they represent far more than themselves.

Their stories, broadly chronological, cover a five-year period, from 2006 to 2011, a time frame that marks a historic presidential election, an economic downturn, budget cuts, a military stretched by deployments to two war zones, and a U.S. public weary of war. During these years, phrases such as “sectarian violence,” “suicide bombers,” “the surge,” “IEDs,” “exit strategy,” “al-Qaeda,” “the Taliban,” and “airstrikes” have become a familiar part of our vocabulary, etched in the minds of Americans.

Against this complex and challenging backdrop, the four main subjects of varying ages, ranks, backgrounds, experience, and personalities play out their lives. They share hard work, determination, and perseverance to reach the top of their professions, but they must weigh their achievements against the challenges in their personal lives.

The issues surrounding women like these aren’t delineated in a Marine Corps manual, Army regulations, or Defense Department statistics and congressional policies. The women each, individually, have to grapple with the consequences of their career choices. The rewards can be extraordinary, but there is also a cost. Some women service members, in the end, decide the price is too great, and feel they have no choice but to leave. Others—many—stay. Is it worth it? What was gained? What was sacrificed? What’s next? These are questions only they can answer. But it’s time to ask.

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Today on The Cycle: Undaunted

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