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My father was an officer in the Army. My grandfather was in the Air Force, and my grandmother served in the Marines. The family legacy was a backdrop reason for my choice to serve my country — it just seemed natural.
“But aren’t you afraid of having to deal with being a woman in a male-dominated culture?” my high school friends asked, flummoxed by my decision. I shrugged.
Popular TV shows and movies portrayed ladies in uniform as badasses who could not only keep up, but keep the boys in check. I’m talking Lt. Col. Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1, Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway in A Few Good Men, and, of course, Princess Leia from Star Wars.
When challenged with a sexist remark (and they always were, as part of their character development), these smart and sassy women would confront the guys unblinkingly — spitting out concise, snappy comebacks, after which they’d purse their glossed lips and turn smartly on the heels of their boots, leaving the men in the dust with their mouths agape.
I have to admit that the thought of being the lone woman up against the boys’ club was kinda sexy. It was like our own female version of John Wayne, and that was an idea that definitely appealed to my daredevil side. Without reason to hesitate, I joined ROTC.
On those early mornings, I learned to march, wear the uniform, render proper customs and courtesies, and scrape my hair into a bun that wouldn’t budge for nothing. I passed my quarterly physical fitness tests. I attended officer basic training in the summer, where the cadre beasted us around the sweaty grounds of Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, from the hours of 0500 to 2200.
They grilled us on our chain of command, enforced strict dining-facility rules, and tested our ability to make command decisions under stress. They inspected our rooms and the sharpness of the hospital corners in our bed sheets — something I was never any good at it — and we understood the moral of the story for all that basic training minutiae: If you can’t enforce small standards for yourself, then how are you possibly going to enforce big standards for someone else?
I was finally commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. And through sheer dumb luck, I was selected for the Munitions and Missile Maintenance specialty—the most male-dominated, testosterone-charged career even within the US Air Force. I mean, we’re talking about missiles and bombs. It was as if the universe were saying to me, “Prove that you’re worth your salt now.”
No problem, Universe. I got this. Bring it.
I fireballed into my first Ammo squadron. I enforced strict standards for myself, just like we had learned to do in basic training. My officemate showed up at 0700 and left at 1600, so I showed up at 0630 and left at 1630 or later. I trained every day of the week so that I could outrun most of the squadron at PT, watching guys blush as I passed them on the track.
I stood in for my commander and briefed the General at weekly staff meetings, delivering killer powerpoint presentations and rattling acronyms off the tip of my tongue.
I observed my senior female officers — what few there were — and developed a business-like voice, smooth and crisp, and plucked my eyebrows into no-nonsense arches.
I was pretty impressed with myself and this professional image I had perfected, and so was my leadership. Fueled by the adrenaline of my success, I worked harder. I got promoted to First Lieutenant. I felt like Superwoman.
Then something unplanned happened, as it always does. A vacancy opened for the base Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC). The USAF Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program was quite young at the time, and senior leadership was still trying to figure out how to offer continual support to overseas installations like mine.
While civilians with advanced degrees in social work filled the stateside positions, the overseas deployable positions had to be filled by military officers. And I was a young officer who had been visible and eager to work hard, so the General quietly tapped me on the shoulder and showed me to my new office.
My job changed overnight from ensuring the safe assembly and delivery of munitions to the flight line to ensuring the safety and well-being of women who had just experienced the worst day of their lives. I carried a hotline phone on my hip and turned down offers from friends to go hiking or swimming. I was the sole rape case manager for an installation of over 3,000 people, and I had to be available 24/7.
Every case was extremely different, and yet they were all same in one respect: Each woman was in a world of pain, and it was my duty to get her the physical, mental, and emotional care that she needed to heal.
My job also entailed base education and outreach. I conducted mass briefings for new airmen, informing them of the program, sexual assault statistics, and my contact information. I still can’t say what was more difficult — the 4 a.m. phone calls, or trying to reach an audience that was 80 percent male on a topic that, to them, concerned only women.
The position I so willingly assumed at first was beginning to take its toll on me. It’s strange — I was on my own in this big office with comfy couches, pictures of flowers, and soft lighting, and all I wanted to do was go back to cold, hard maintenance. This was certainly a situation that none of my female heroines from the movies had to confront.
I became acutely aware from others’ reactions to my new position that this was seen as the least desirable job in the Air Force — even considered “soft” by my fellow maintainers. I tried to reconcile that word with my own physical and mental exhaustion, late nights at the hospital, and grieving for my clients.
I was working harder than I ever had before in my life, but the rest of my superwoman persona simply didn’t transfer. There were too many questions and emotions rippling beneath my skin, and I wanted to turn them off before they turned me into someone else.
Time passed. I was promoted to Captain, and soon it was my turn for a routine change of assignment. It was finally time to pass the hotline phone and the briefings to someone else. I breathed a sigh of relief on the plane, and made a list of all the things I hoped to accomplish at my new base.
I received a cold welcome. My new chief showed me to my tiny, dusty closet of an office.
“When the commander and I saw on your record that you were a SARC at your last base,” he said to me, “we interpreted that as you trying to take the easy route and get out of work.” He looked at me with his brick-wall face, poised for my reaction.
My face was not a brick wall. I had long lost that skill. This man who was supposed to be under my command and obey my lawful orders had just pissed in my face.
If I’d thought of myself as a superhero before, that conversation was my phone booth moment.
Except that I didn’t come out like a normal person again — all my power must have gone to my ears, because I started hearing things in different ways. My faith in my team and my commitment to the mission faltered as I heard all the sexist remarks, rape jokes, and slut-shaming. They were so loud that I couldn’t hear anything else. I was tired — exhausted. I couldn’t even concentrate on editing a simple document after hearing snide comments about how Sgt. Sanders* might be able to pass her PT test if only she hit the gym as much as she slept around, or how Sgt. Haynes* getting post-cancer breast reconstruction surgery was a waste of the Air Force’s time and money.
Before, I’d have heard these comments as harmless, perhaps even true — I’d have shrugged them off, or even laughed along so that I’d still be the Cool Captain. You gotta be tough if you want to play with the boys.
Not now. I began to be tough in a new way.
I once knew a vociferous female First Sergeant — Sgt. Rand*. She had no time for sexism whatsoever, and in my mind, she was the epitome of the military superwoman archetype. The only difference? Men hated her. It was the crucial difference, but she didn’t seem to care. As the story goes, a man once complimented her on how fine she looked that day, and she blasted him for five minutes straight on the nerve he had for disrespecting her in uniform.
“You really got to have that gut instinct–to-mouth reflex,” she told me in her thick Kentucky accent. “For me, it’s just always been there.”
Her words echoed in my mind, and I began cultivating that gut instinct–to-mouth reflex. Instead of turning a blind eye, I started confronting sexism on the spot. I even had my snappy comeback lined up for when the men shook their heads and moaned nostalgically, “Can’t say or do what you used to be able to anymore in this kinder, gentler Air Force.”
“Damn straight you can’t. It’s 2012. Get with the program.”
I became known as the feminist Captain — the one who went to bat for all the women. They hated me for it. I didn’t care. I had respect for myself.
However, I found that confronting sexism on the spot was nearly impossible in a room full of male superiors. At staff meetings, the men would guffaw at each other’s penis and rape jokes as I sat there, awkward and excluded. The Colonel at the head of the table would chuckle and then quiet them all by saying, “Boys, boys — there’s a lady in the room right now,” turning attention to me as if I were the follow-up joke.
Instead of my past canned reaction for this typical occurrence — a side smirk and raised eyebrows — I then wanted to walk out of the room. But I didn’t, because I couldn’t. I was just a Captain, and these were all Majors and above. I didn’t just want their approval — I needed it. So I boiled in silence.
Finally, a fellow female Captain and I were tired of hearing rape jokes at meetings and mandatory officer calls — we reported our superiors to the Equal Opportunity office, which deals with sexual harassment cases. Our case was returned a few months later as having “insubstantial evidence.”
It’s no surprise that sexism stays so well intact — it trickles down from the top of the chain of command. This past year, “Mustache March” was sanctioned by our Chief of Staff as an official service-wide competition — ironically coinciding with Women’s History Month.
Maj. Jennifer Holmes hit the nail on the head when she stated in her Air Force Times article, “The fact is, this ‘gauntlet’ thrown down by the most senior leader in our Air Force does not bring us together by tradition; it promotes the long-standing ‘boys club’ that continues to drive amazing female airmen out of the military.”
With all the top brass blindness to trickle-down sexism and rape culture, I barely even blinked when the head of the SAPR program was charged with sexual assault and battery last May. We had an Air Force–wide stand-down day following that incident — maintenance stopped, we put our tool bags aside, and the hangar was set up for mass briefings on sexual assault prevention.
Being on the other side of the stage in that great sea of uniforms was almost as painful as being on the stage itself. I sat in a metal chair amidst endless eye-rolling and sarcastic comments as the base SARC smiled and joked, detailing the proper definition of consent, and how to know when someone’s had too much to drink to give consent.
He bounced around the stage like a bad comedian, trying to get people to pay attention — to like him and his program, even if he didn’t know how. He asked at the end if there were any questions. Some guy raised his hand, stood up, and spoke into the mike.
“So, like, if two people get drunk, have sex, wake up the next morning in bed together, and neither of them wanted to do it, was it the woman or the man who was raped?”
The sea of uniforms clapped and cheered.
This is the problem. Working in the military, you live by rules and regulations. Detailed definitions and technical orders for how to install a fuze or swap out an engine. There is no technical order for assault or consent, and everyone knows why. We’re humans, not machines.
When some smartass thinks he’s being clever and tries to apply his maintenance tech school logic to a very human situation and the room cheers, that doesn’t fix anything at all. It just makes things a whole lot worse.
Because guess what? There’s also no regulation out there for micro-aggressions or underhanded snark, even though those are the seeds of much more serious aggressions that become labeled as harassment and assault. If you’re offended, well kiddo, you better get over it, because there’s tougher work out there to be done.
I quit active duty not very long ago. Now I’m in the Reserves; I didn’t want to give up service to my country on account of an unhealthy culture that I hope and sincerely believe will change in time. It won’t change on its own, however.
I feel that it is a part of my duty to speak out, even if my voice is anonymous. I just think back to the hospital corners in the bed sheets at basic training, and the question: “If you can’t enforce small standards for yourself, how are you going to enforce big standards for someone else?” The answer is, you can’t.