By E. Faye Williams
On 7/26/48, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which effectively led to the eventual desegregation of the military. There are many who laud Mr. Truman for visionary action and just as many who reflect upon the economic futility of having to manage two separate military forces – one Black, one White.
The Order established the policy of equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the military regardless of race, color, religion or national origin. It was to be put into effect as rapidly as possible, with due regard to the time required to effectuate necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
On 5/15/42, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and escalating wartime “manpower” requirements, President Roosevelt signed a law that had languished in Congress for over a year to establish the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), and gave WAACs an official status and salary, but few of the benefits granted males.
The public was initially resistant to women in the Army, but after demonstrating their ability to release men for combat duties, women became an acceptable addition to the force. The “Auxiliary” designation was dropped. Women replaced many men in clerical assignments and relieved thousands in many non-traditional jobs.
Not until 1978 did the Army see fit to establish equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons without regard to GENDER, with the dis-establishment of the WAC and the integration of male and female forces. Though not exclusive to the Army, which maintains the largest number of military women, women faced significant restrictions. Women performed their duties with integrity and honor; yet many women weren’t taken as serious professionals or were treated as jokes.
Modern warfare has had as much to do with breaking down barriers for military women as any other factor. When excluded from combat by the Combat Exclusion Policy of 1948, women were perceived as a part of a “protected” class. At the urging of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Combat Exclusion Policy was lifted on 1/24/13 making women eligible to serve in combat environments and operations.
Since the devolution of “traditional frontline” or symmetric warfare, like other “warriors,” women have been exposed to all of the harsh realities of combat such as the psychological horrors of and now the suffering of physical trauma. Lines of engagement have been blurred to the extent that no one is exempt because of gender.
While women have caught up with the military, the military has not reconciled with the realities of a force that has near-parity in terms of gender. Women who’re combat-injured fall victim to an institution that’s perceived with the stereotypical image of being singularly male. This is significant for medical treatment and reintegration into the civilian community.
Evidence of the sacrifices of women veterans is apparent to anyone who refuses to cast a blind eye. We need only look in schools, churches, shopping malls and the halls of Congress. Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth is a combat injured veteran who lost both legs. It’s there in the horror stories of women who suffer from the effects of combat induced PTSD or the psychological effects of sexual assault, abuse and harassment by members of their own units.
Women must navigate a male-dominant medical service that shows little concern for providing prosthetic devices that conform to the female anatomy or treatment modalities that are more woman-friendly. Many refuse to believe women participate in the cruelties of combat.
We can help by listening and learning, by not falling into the trap of those who look at veterans’ problems from the male perspective only, and by informing others. Mobilize people to serve as conduits of information, and finally, identify and illuminate challenges! Write elected officials and urge their support, reminding them that every G.I. is not a Joe!
Dr. E. Faye Williams is President of the National Congress of Black Women. www.nationalcongressbw.org.