By Tessa Raebeck
In January 2013, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the military’s official ban on women in combat, following receipt of a letter from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating that the chiefs were in agreement that “the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”
“That’s suggesting that somehow there are some [barriers] that were still necessary. I don’t know about that,” Vietnam War veteran Susan Wilson said Tuesday. Wilson was joined by other female military personnel at a panel discussion, “The Changing Role of Women in the Military: Vietnam to Gulf War and Beyond,” hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Hampton Bays Public Library.
Wilson, a member of the league, opened the evening with stories of her experience serving in WAVES, the U.S. Naval Women’s Reserve, as a non-deployed member of the Navy during the Vietnam War.
“It was not a popular war,” she said. “Women were not welcome.” Wilson served as an administrative assistant, one of seven women in a squadron of 500 men. The waves were not permitted to wear nail polish or let their hair grow past their collars, yet they were required to wear lipstick at all times.
“I hated lipstick so for me that was not fun to do, but it was important and if you were going to get through boot camp, you were going to do that,” Wilson recalled. When she wanted to get married, she had to ask her commanding officer for permission. When she got pregnant, she was dismissed from the military. Military females at the time were not permitted to have dependents under the age of 18.
“The equality that comes from that uniform was not as complete as it is for a man. Women enjoyed equal pay, equal right to be subject to the military code of justice,” she told the crowd. “But equal job and advance opportunities, not so much.”
“As war changed and weapons changed over the years with more modern weaponry – scud missiles and roadside bombs – battle lines blurred and suddenly every soldier – male and female – was at risk,” Wilson said, adding that over 40,000 women served in the 1991 Gulf War, the first time men and women served in integrated units within a war zone. In 1994, the Pentagon reversed the progress of military women, instituting a rule restricting them from serving in combat roles, although they continued to do so unofficially.
“Just because they were not permitted to serve in combat zones, didn’t mean they weren’t there and they weren’t doing their jobs,” said Wilson. “We were there, we as a sisterhood were there.”
Wilson said Panetta’s lift of the ban was a welcome recognition of that work, although “it took so long for that to happen.”
While admitting there’s still a long ways to go, the panel was optimistic that women in the military have made significant strides toward equal standing, especially in the last decade.
Lisa D’Agostino, Family Readiness Program Manager for the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard, is a 106th Rescue Airman, as well as a military spouse and mother.
“When I first started in 2005,” D’Agostino said Tuesday, “to where we are now with family programs and the importance of families – having to take care of the family so our military men and women can do the job they have to do – has changed tremendously in a positive way.”
Also stationed with the 106 at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, Chief Sherri Huppert-Grassie has been deployed overseas four times since joining the military in 1992.
“I love when we get to go away and do our job because that’s what we do,” she said. “We’re focused on just the job.”
In 2000, Huppert-Grassie went on her first deployment to Turkey. In 2001, she was deployed to Kuwait and in 2003 she served in Iraq.
While in Iraq, “the guys” she served with were worried about Huppert-Grassie coming along, voicing concern for her wellbeing. “It’s touching, but you still want to do what your job is. It doesn’t matter because I’m going with them,” she said. “We’re just doing our job out there.”
“Finally, in 2009 I deployed again and that was to Afghanistan,” said Huppert-Grassie. Her husband, who is also in the military, supported her on the home front during her deployments. If they were both deployed, her mother watched over their daughter. Huppert-Grassie’s experience is a far cry from being dismissed for being pregnant, as Wilson was.
“As females, I believe that I have a lot of passionate emotion and I try to not let it get the best of me because I want to be that leader,” she said. “I love being in the military.”
Master Sergeant Cheran Cambridge has served as a medical service administrator in the military for 12 years. In 2010, Cambridge was deployed to Saudi Arabia, where she worked as part of a five-person team in a blood transshipment center, supplying blood and plasma to medical units. She attributes her militancy to her Caribbean grandmother.
“Me being in boot camp didn’t really teach me anything, cause I learned from my grandmother,” she said. “That’s where I learned my public service from.”
As the newly appointed commander of Southampton’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 7009, Susan Soto is the first female and the first Native American to hold the position. Soto’s father was a World War II veteran, her uncle was a veteran of the Korean War and her brother was in the Navy. Growing up on the stories of their deployments, Soto “needed to find a way to feed my thirst for travel,” so she joined the military in 1982.
Soto was deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm in August of 1990, one of five women in the intelligence unit there.
“The guys were great, the Navy Seals,” she recalled. “This was a time when women were deploying, but the media was putting out a lot of negative words on women deploying to Desert Storm…To me, it was no question for me to go and be deployed. I had no problem with it, it was my job, that was what I went into the military to do, to support my country.”