War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds, and Controversy

By William B. Breuer | Go to book overview

22 A Spirited Debate

Captain Terry VandenHolder sat in the rear of a packed room as the manpower and personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee was holding hearings about allowing women in combat. She fumed, not liking what the witnesses were saying. She perceived that the "ol' boys" in the Washington power seats were balking at permitting her to achieve the job to which she aspired--a fighter pilot. It was mid-June 1991.1

VandenHolder was a cargo plane pilot in the Air Force reserves. She had been called up during Desert Shield, and had been shuttling supplies, weapons, and bodies to the Gulf and back, but this was her day off. She grew increasingly angry as the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force testified. "I'm not enthusiastic about increasing the exposure of women to combat," said General Merrill McPeak, the Air Force boss.

"Old fashioned!" VandenHolder scribbled on a pad. Minutes passed. More scribbling. "Last bastion of male domination of the military!"

"For women, there's no longer a protective barrier, some easy-to-see frontline," she told a reporter. "A woman can get hit by a Scud missile. There's no more hiding behind rocks--or social mores."2

However, she was encouraged by a reassuring statement by Christopher Jehn, the Pentagon's top personnel official, who testified that the military planned to allow more roles for women. But, he added, restrictions would be lifted only if there were "no adverse impact on readiness or combat effectiveness."

The high-profile activities of military women in the Gulf--televised into millions of American homes almost every night--had been "too anecdotal from which to make judgments," Jehn declared.

General Alfred M. Gray, Jr., the Marine Corps commandant, heartily agreed. "[Desert Storm] was not the ultimate test of sustained combat," he told the subcommittee. "It was a short war."3

It was not just "ol' boys" making their views known to another group of "ol' boys": some military women came out in staunch opposition to repealing the combat exclusion law. One of them, Captain Cheryl R. Finch, who

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