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My Mother Was a Colonel

In October, the U.S. military has a chance to stop excluding women from the front lines

Scott Olson/Getty

The summer I was four years old, my family spent a week on vacation with relatives in New Jersey. One morning, while we packed coolers for the beach, I noticed someone was missing. “Mommy,” I asked, “where’s Uncle Billy?” 

“He’s doing his Army work,” she replied.

“Army work,” my siblings and I knew, was when our mother put on her uniform and went away. Back then, as a major in the Army Reserves, she spent several weekends a year on duty at various posts near our home in Maryland. At the time, my mother said, she could see the wheels turning in my head; according to her, a look of utter bewilderment came over my face. 

“You mean…they let BOYS do Army work?!”

The adults around me burst into laughter. 

In my four years, I had regularly seen my mother, my aunt, and several of my mother’s female friends in uniform. I was too young to have seen any war movies. At some point, I had concluded the military was only for girls—no boys allowed! The thought of my uncle off doing Army work dressed in a uniform I’d only seen worn by women was completely at odds with how I viewed the world. The irony feels particularly poignant now, 22 years later.

By October 1, the U.S. military must decide if they will open all combat positions to women, who have historically been excluded from direct combat assignments. If any branches choose to continue prohibiting women from serving, they will have to request exemptions from the current Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter. The Air Force, Army, and Navy have indicated they are not likely to seek exemptions; Special Operations Command will probably follow suit. 

The Marine Corps, however, is requesting that women be excluded from competing for certain front-line combat positions. The decision came in the wake of a controversial report released by the Corps earlier this month, whose findings suggest that the branch believes mixed-gender units are not as capable as all-male units. 

In the meantime, tensions are rising. Once final decisions are made, on January 1, 2016, the 1994 rule that explicitly excludes women from combat arms assignments will be overturned, and some, if not all, of the positions currently closed to women in the military will be opened. 

Officially allowing women to serve in all combat roles is a historic decision—though women have been de facto serving on the front lines for years—but lifting this ban will not shatter the so-called brass ceiling. It will shift the military’s focus to be on capabilities and standards rather than on gender. Over time, it will hopefully help pave the way for more women in the military to reach the highest ranks: combat command positions. The vast majority of top military leaders come from serving in combat arms roles; to be considered for these extremely selective positions, service members must meet rigorous physical standards and possess robust mental stamina. But none of this will change the fact that the thought of a woman in the military—regardless of her rank—is still surprising to most.

This August, my mother and I drove to the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1999, my mother graduated from the War College, which exists to train high-performing officers expected to serve in prestigious military leadership positions. Of the 360 students in her graduating class, 24 were women; of those 24, three were mothers.

Our first morning there, we walked into Root Hall, the War College’s main building, where a middle-aged security guard greeted us. I explained we were looking for the archives library. He glanced at my mother. “Are you here to look up your father’s military records?” he asked her.

“No,” she answered politely. “My daughter is a journalist, here to do research for a story,” she said. “We actually used to live on post, years ago.”

The guard’s face lit up. “Oh! What year was your husband a student here?”

My mother was a full bird colonel—one rank below general—in the Army, and it is difficult to ruffle her feathers; I have yet to see her get offended when someone dismisses the possibility that it is she, not her husband, who spent 30 years serving her country.

“Actually, I graduated in ’99,” she said.

The guard’s smile faltered. 

“I had 30 years of commissioned service,” she continued. Over the years, she has mastered how to deliver this line in a polite, modest tone. It’s code for: “I served in the Army for three decades and retired as a colonel.” Anyone with basic knowledge of how military service works immediately gets it.

It’s amazing how quickly one changes their body language when they realize the five-foot-tall woman to whom they are literally speaking down is a retired colonel. The man—and it’s almost always a man—turns red and sputters an apology. He immediately starts addressing my mother as “ma’am.” And if he is a serving member of the military, when the conversation ends, he will often salute.

For many women in the military, this assumption is nothing new. When someone learns that I come from a military family, they almost always ask what branch my father served in; I can count on one hand the number of times someone has asked me which of my parents is in the military. (And I don’t think I want to know how often my father has said the words, “Actually, it’s my wife…” since he married her 36 years ago.)

I’ve learned many things from my mother: how to hold a rifle, the military phonetic alphabet (“Alpha! Bravo! Charlie!” we’d chant on road trips), and the most efficient way to lick cookie batter off of eggbeaters. But it is at moments like these, when I watch her counter a deep-seated societal bias with grace and humility, that I feel I am learning an essential lesson. 

There is a very real chance the next president of the United States—our commander-in-chief—will be a woman. That is a beautiful thing. When it comes to equal opportunities for women, our country has made incredible strides in professions such as law, medicine, business, and politics. But while integrating women into combat positions is undoubtedly a step forward, when it comes to changing perceptions and enhancing equality in the military, we still have so much work to do.