As a little girl in the '40s when my dad was commanding a submarine in the Pacific, I dreamed of being just like him, even hoping to command a ship.
I remember sitting at my school desk doodling submarines and ships that would sink the "bad guys." I wanted to protect my country from the bad guys and followed my father's path into the Navy. While I commanded a shore activity, I never got to command a ship. That no longer is true for little girls today.
Recently, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the intention to lift the combat exclusion rule regarding women serving in ground forces. The chiefs, without prodding from the secretary, unanimously decided it is time for one more step toward equality for military women.
In the past 70 years the values and ideas underlying our military's policies on women have moved from traditionalist to egalitarian.
As a naval officer in the '60s, I longed for the constitutional truth of equality but faced the realities of serving as an officer who happened to be a woman. To serve my country, earning equal pay and filling challenging positions was indeed a privilege, yet like many women in the services I questioned why women couldn't have the same opportunities across the spectrum, including sea duty. Our military, which prided itself in respecting the values of honor, duty, country, was supporting discriminatory laws and policies under the premise of unit cohesion, teamwork and morale. The message was, "Women are second-class members."
Cultural change manifests in a complex array of factors. The perfect storm insofar as military women's opportunities burst into play in the early '70s: a strong social movement (the second wave of the women's movement); advocates and activists (men and women) willing to lead and risk their careers; lawyers working with plaintiffs (military women) to change antiquated laws that would force policy changes; congressional members willing to legislate to keep up with America's changing views of women; and — a major influence for military planners — the all-volunteer force. Our military institution was creeping slowly toward equality for women and other minorities, always conscious of the impact these changes might have on its mission and readiness.
In the meantime, my active duty experiences and education in the '60s and '70s taught me about discrimination against minorities in general. Several "clicks" of consciousness occurred. I determined I was lesbian, and not bisexual. My reality, which included challenging positions and responsibilities, remained far from the little-girl dream of modeling my father's sea-going world. The cognitive dissonance between gender equality and my reality pushed me into an activist mode, using the pen instead of the sword, writing on behalf of military women's roles and rights.
The alleged flaming radical libbers of the '70s (including me) became senior women respectfully nudging their fellow shipmates, soldiers and airmen to support changes; simultaneously, military women continued to prove their mettle. By the Iraq War, women were serving in combat assignments including combatant ships, planes and assignments supporting ground units (e.g. medics, helicopters pilots, intelligence). They were still restricted from ground combat units — infantry, artillery, armor and others. As the numbers show, women lost their lives and limbs in service to their country, but without the true recognition and acceptance they so clearly deserved.
The evolution of policies and their underlying laws often goes in fits and starts. Within a two-year time span military leadership has decided two major milestones, lifting the ban on gays serving openly and now ending the combat exclusion policy for Army and Marine forces, further opening combat and leadership roles for women. A young girl of today could in fact realize the dream held by this little girl of the '40s.
I salute these legal and policy changes. As Disraeli stated, "Sir, I say that justice is truth in action." Through the actions of thousands of Americans, including service members, justice has finally prevailed for both military women and gays. The reality for all members serving in our armed forces finally reflects the truth, that all of us are created equal.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Beth F. Coye lives in Ashland.