Navigating Military Service, Parenting And The Brass Ceiling
According to the Pentagon, more than 1.8 million women are veterans, and more than 200,000 women are currently on active duty.
But being a woman in the service has its rewards and its challenges — there are more opportunities for women in the armed services, but there is also the highly publicized problem of sexual violence in the military, which often goes unreported and unprosecuted.
Miyoko Hikiji is a former Army specialist. She said that serving overseas during the war in Iraq inspired her current work. She's now an author, and her book is titled All I Could Be: My Story As A Woman Warrior In Iraq.
"I think losing two unit members — someone who was close to me in my squad and another unit member [who was] a friend — really made me think about what it was that I was going to do to preserve their memory and to immortalize their stories so that they weren't just going to be a blip in the news for a day," she told Tell Me More's Celeste Headlee.
But she said there are challenges for women who serve in the military and still have to balance the role of traditional caregiver.
Graciela Tiscareño-Sato, a former Air Force pilot, said that part of the reason she wanted to write her book, Good Night Captain Mama, in Spanish, was to communicate that Latinas and mommies are veterans, too. "It's about the little 5-year-old girl last week in an elementary school who pulled on my sleeve at the end of the assembly and said in Spanish, 'I want to fly airplanes like you did,' " she said.
And then there's the military's climate toward women. The Senate held hearings on sexual assault and harassment in the armed forces over the summer, and it's a problem that military is struggling to find a solution to. There's little evidence that current strategies reduce the numbers of sexual assaults, and very few alleged perpetrators are ever punished.
Hikiji said that she wouldn't discourage women from joining the military because of those problems, but she said she would encourage them to be realistic and that some commonly suggested tactics — walking with a "battle buddy," not going out at night, not drinking — offer little protection from rape or sexual violence.
"If it's something that you believe in, you really have a desire to serve, I would never tell someone that that wasn't their right," Hikiji said. "But I do caution people that there isn't a laundry list of things that you can do to either prepare yourself or to prevent assault, because really sexual assault in the military is about the perpetrator committing a crime. ... I think what we need to do is really look at prosecuting rape cases, getting rape perpetrators out of the military. That is really the only way to solve the problem."
Hikiji said that when she gives talks to women in the military, there is someone who shares a story about a sexual assault case "almost about 100 percent of the time."
But dealing with issues like rape in the armed forces is more difficult because so little of the military's top brass is made up of women. Tiscareño-Sato said she has seen progress on that front, although that progress varies by branch and by specialty.
"You know, power doesn't yield power without a fight, right? And so those who are in power are going to want to stay there," she said. "But ... when I was one of a handful of women flying up in Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., we had five flight squadrons. Three of them were actually commanded by women pilots by the time I left the service."
Hikiji, who used to drive trucks in the Army, agreed. "I think there's still a brass ceiling there, and I think lifting the combat exclusion policy in the spring" — the recently lifted restrictions on women serving on the front lines — "is going to change a little bit of that."
Tiscareño-Sato noted that the ban on women in aircraft operations was lifted in 1993.
But both women said they saw the service as a place of opportunity for their daughters. "What I would tell my daughter would be to get your education first, whether you get the scholarship or not, and while you're doing that, you can get exposed to many different careers that you might want to pursue in the military," Tiscareño-Sato said.
But the former pilot had a preference. "And then, of course, I would encourage her to go Air Force. That's my bias," she said.
Tell Me More's Twitter chat on female veterans is below. Got your own stories of being a woman in the armed forces? Share them in the comments.