I have been out of the Army for quite a while now, and people often ask me if I miss it; this question pisses me off a little every time someone asks it; it seems like a question that has many dishonest motives and those who ask it never let me off the hook. So here is my answer: yes, sometimes I do “miss” the Army, but less and less as the years pass. The first year or two after I got out I tended to see the Army through rose colored glasses; I only remembered the great things, and tended to not remember all the really awful days; and there were a lot of really awful days. These days my memories are thankfully much more balanced.
But even as the years pass, there is one thing that I do actually persistently miss and it seems like a little thing, but it is not. I miss the absolutely candid, usually contentious, extremely imperative conversations I had with my soldiers, my peers, and my leaders. There is a lot of down time in between the chaos of war, and soldiers do a lot of amusing things with this time, but they talk to each other a lot too…imagine that? During smoke breaks, during the constant and never ending equipment inspections, in rain filled bunkers waiting for the “all clear”, and during the endless miles spent in a very hot HMMWV delivering supplies, I have talked at length with my soldiers, peers and leaders about categorically dark and difficult subjects like racism, torture, President Bush, rape, freedom, being gay in the Army, service, citizenship, fear, and loss, never once experiencing intolerance or hurt feelings. This weekend as I travelled to Chicago to meet with my fellow Tillman Military Scholars, for our annual Leadership Summit I had a few of these rare and awesome conversations; the kind one remembers for a lifetime; the kind I miss.
The 1% who attended our annual Leadership Summit talked formally about a lot of things and those formal conversations were instructive, but it is always the off-line conversations that are the most exciting and the most imperative. One conversation that I will remember for quite a while was a very “off-line”, somewhat intoxicated, conversation that took place among four former officers (me included) over many drinks on the top of the iconic Hancock Tower….overlooking the daunting but equally rousing night expanse of Chicago.
Military Officers are perpetually busy, perpetually crunched for time; therefore we get right to the point. Even when we leave the military and become Veterans, this operating style is burnt into our brains. So that particular Saturday night on top of the Hancock Tower, this group of military officers was no different, we were short on time, and big on questions; we understood that quickly leveraging the impressive intellect of the Officers present was a must. We required our peer’s opinions and we needed to measure our own. So after many drinks and a little small talk our patience had expired; Former Marine Officer #1 banged down his top shelf whiskey on the rocks, used many hand signals and loudly stated: “ok, let’s talk about the hard stuff, lets lay it out”… and we did. Many “F Bombs” were dropped, many interruptions were made, many voices were raised, emotions were high, but in the end, as is almost always the case among those who serve, respect is never lost because the word “team” is also burnt into our brains; we almost always retreat back to our foxhole, friends. This is not always the case in the civilian world.
Former Marine Officer #1 needed to check his thoughts on torture…he had obviously been thinking about it, and so that was our first discussion. This exchange was fascinating, surprising, and hopeful on so many levels, and I should write about it at some point, because I literally had to take a knee; it was that unexpected. But former Army Officer #2 (me) was also pressed for time, and needed answers about how my peers felt about women in combat units…. that was our second conversation
I have written a lot about the integration of women into combat units and it is no secret that while I once did not support the idea, I have radically changed my mind. I now, based on the experiences I had over two deployments to Iraq, support the integration of women into combat units 100%. So this conversation for me was important to say the least; gaining the insight of these men (I was the only woman except for the wife of one of the officers present) was integral to what I write, how I write it, and more importantly, it was integral to me on a very personal level.
What I discovered to my surprise, was that all of the Officers present, in our slightly intoxicated, sleep deprived state supported the policy, some more cautiously than others, but we all did. These men are all hardened combat Veterans, they are all wicked smart, all leaders in their field, many attended Ivy League universities, and they all supported the new policy…I literally could not believe it. All had the usual concerns, one actually had none. Some were nervous that the physical standards would change and Marine Officer # 1, citing flawed current standards, didn’t care if they did.
Because I enthusiastically support the integration of women into combat units sometimes it easy for me to only see and listen to those who do not support the policy. I had forgotten that men in the military are not my enemy, they are on my “team” and their concerns are valid and real. As we integrate women into combat units the support of these men is paramount; integration will fail miserably without it. I am thankful I was able to have a conversation like this with these men; I am thankful that they held nothing back, I am thankful that they are passionate about their combat units, I am thankful that they want their units to remain strong war fighting machines, but I am most thankful that they pulled me out of the weeds long enough to see the many “friendlies” that surround me instead of always seeing the enemy.
Sometimes I get worried that the policy will not be implemented or that if it is, it will only be implemented in a few jobs, I am fearful that the Infantry and Special Forces will be deemed places that are unable to accommodate women. In fact, I am so fearful of this, that I annoyingly and constantly post and comment on everything I can find on the subject, I write about it whenever I can. I think that if I put it out there every day, if I post images of women in combat units on social media every day, it will just become a reality for people, and eventually it won’t seem so foreign to civilians or Infantrymen. Eventually people will see the women who desire these positions are real women, not hyper masculine caricatures, eventually people will see that the women in other countries that do have these jobs are not a “distraction” to their units, and are actually respected and needed.
But this morning at my local coffee shop as I hammer out this Blog, I am less fearful that integration will go down in flames than I was before the “off-line” conversation on the top of the Hancock Tower. This morning, I think it will be o.k.; if these Marine Officers (I was the only Army Officer present), these wicked smart, combat veterans support women in their combat units, than the hold-outs must be few, they might be loud, but they are few. I would be wise to remember this for at least a few weeks.