Veterans’ stories: Women’s evolving roles in war

Alison Brody
Public Insight Network
Norma Briggs served in the US Army in the mid-1980s. Here she is being promoted to the rank of Specialist.

Norma Briggs (right) served in the Army in the mid-1980s and shared a photo of her promotion ceremony. Women have been on the front lines for years, she says: “We have just never been given credit (or medals), or received the combat pay men get for doing the same thing.” (Photo shared by Norma Briggs)

The Pentagon announced last week that women will soon be officially allowed to serve in combat roles, a move that could open up front-line positions and potentially elite jobs that have been, before now, out of reach for generations of female service members.

As part of our ongoing coverage of the modern military and veteran experiences, we asked veterans and current members of the military about what they think of this change. Here is some of what we heard.

Spc. Norma Briggs
U.S. Army, mid-1980s, served in Germany

“We have been [in combat] for many years; we have just never been given credit (or medals), or received the combat pay men get for doing the same thing.

“My concern is not about the ability of women to perform; it’s the lack of all branches of the military to address military sexual trauma. The military barely addresses all the sexual assaults (male and female) occurring now.

“I don’t doubt the female solder’s ability to fire a gun; I doubt the military will treat her as an equal.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Greg Chase
U.S. Navy, 1979-85

“I understand that allowing women to serve in combat is good for equality, but is it good for the military? Will those units be better at achieving their goal of fighting and winning?

“How will America react when video of women being taken prisoner, assaulted (sexually or otherwise) are shown on the nightly news? What will be said when the C-5s land at Dover and the caskets are unloaded with women soldiers?

“I argue that not all equality is good, or necessary.”

Charon Hannink with fellow servicemen and women in Spain after a base 5K run.

Charon Hannink (middle, with number ’246′ on her shirt) relaxes with fellow service members in Spain after a 5K run. A petty officer in the U.S. Navy, Hannink served for 13 years both stateside and overseas. She says in her experience serving far from home she learned to rely on and trust those around her, no matter their gender. (Photo shared by Charon Hannink)

Petty Officer 1st Class Charon Hannink
U.S. Navy, 1979-92, served on various bases overseas and on the USS Shenandoah

“I’m willing to say that if you were to interview people about this subject you’d see a significant difference in opinion based on duty station.

“Those who have served only in stateside or short deployments will be negative about women’s roles. Those who have served in a long-term assignment outside the U.S. and away from family will provide positive comments.

“This is true in the second group’s case because when they are around their shipmates 24/7, they see them in a different light and learn to rely and trust them more. I learned that while stationed overseas.”

Lt. Andrea Marr
U.S. Navy, 2005-10, served in Iraq and Afghanistan

“The military reflects society. The only people who don’t seem to realize this are politicians and bureaucrats.

“Women have been serving in combat roles for the past two decades and everyone in the military knew it. Not everywhere of course, but like many military personnel issues, this is a bigger deal to people outside of the system than to people in it.”

Douglas Parkinson
U.S. Army, 1966-68,  served in Vietnam

“From my experience some women in fire support roles were very effective.

“[In Vietnam], I participated in small teams. I currently manage small teams of both men and women in fieldwork as a fishery consultant. It can be difficult and demanding. While women are unable to participate in the most physical tasks, they are valuable assets for accomplishing missions that demand stamina and clear thinking.

“While women may not be able to accomplish a task through sheer force they will develop alternate strategies to accomplish the same task.

“Presence of women has a tendency to improve male performance and vice versa.”

William Kone, 25-year veteran of the US Army and US Army Reserves, teaches basic rifle marksmanship to soldiers.

1st Sgt. William Kone, a 25-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserve, teaches basic rifle marksmanship to soldiers. He says he’s concerned that women don’t have the upper body strength to carry the combat load. (Photo shared by William Kone)

1st Sgt. William Kone
U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve, 25-year veteran

“I know this is hard to understand, but women in general (not all, but most) don’t have the upper body strength to carry the combat load, nor the stamina to go the distance.

“[I carried:] 210 rounds (for an M-16), 3 quarts of water, night-vision equipment and serialized weapon gear, cleaning kit, some kind of food to last 24 hours, signaling gear, 50 pounds of body armor. With radio, I carried 95-ish pounds of stuff every day on foot patrols.”

Spc. Casey Head
Iowa National Guard, 2004-05, participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom

“It’s going to reduce unit morale and combat effectiveness at first.

“Having worked in a combat unit with women embedded in a support role, we always felt a need to protect and watch over them. Making a cultural shift away from that is going to be difficult, but I believe it’s a shift that has to be made.”

Sgt. Mara Solberg
North Dakota National Guard, 1975-91

“When I was in the military, there were not many women who were enlisting. It was a time when there were male soldiers who didn’t think women should enlist.

“I remember being ignored sometimes, or guys calling me names from across the parking lot just because I was female.

“But we have come a long way and my kids, who are in their 20s, seem to see no difference between the abilities of the different sexes.”

Paul Cauchon served in the Medical Service Corps of the US Navy for 28 years. Here he is standing in Kuwait City during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Lt. Cmdr. Paul Cauchon served in the Navy’s Medical Service Corps for 28 years, in many operations, including Operation Iraqi Freedom, which took him to Kuwait City. In his experience, “the women did every job the men did, including firefighting and damage control.” (Photo shared by Paul Cauchon)

Lt. Cmdr. Paul Cauchon
U.S. Navy corpsman, 1977 – 2006, participated in many operations, including Operation Iraqi Freedom

“I was a medical officer on a mixed-crew ship (the USS Merrimack), and the women did every job the men did, including firefighting and damage control.

“When I deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 with Fleet Hospital 15, I sat alongside many women in the bunkers as Saddam Hussein tried to Scud (missile) us to death.

“They are already taking the risks; they should be afforded the same ‘reward’ as men for doing so.

“Not all men are equally strong; not all men are equally skilled. If the Israeli Army can do it, so can we.

“Finally, if sexual assault is a concern, the sad reality is that changing the official combat status of women will not change that at all. If anything, it may lessen the rate.”


Maj. Thad Evans
U.S. Army, 1971-91

“It took time for blacks to be accepted, and I’m sure it’s taking time for gays to be accepted.

“Women will be integrated successfully, but more slowly. The gender bias will go quickly, but the natural male protectiveness will go away more slowly.

“The military needs to act quickly to put even more stringent sexual harassment methodology in place. This will be the biggest problem.”


>> If you have military experience, tell us how it informs your views of this change.


Alison Brody Analyst
Public Insight Network

Alison Brody spends her day surrounded by stories from people all across the country. She works with journalists from newsrooms like NPR and The New York Times to help turn these insights into meaningful journalism (i.e., not from a press release or a political speech).

Before joining the PIN team, Alison worked as a PIN analyst at the public radio show Marketplace. For two years she asked questions about credit card debt, employment, unemployment and health insurance. She's also worked at Los Angeles’ public television station, where she helped produce an international news pilot and a digital prototype that was half game, half social network, aimed at teaching students about the U.S. Constitution.