published Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Chattanooga area female veterans split on policy shift

Debra Shadwick thought back on her military career on Wednesday evening.

She thought about the sergeants and the other men who told her she didn't belong, that a woman's place is in the home, and that's that. She thought about how hearing those statements, over and over again, motivated her. And Shadwick, who now lives in McDonald, Tenn., thought about how she spent her whole career, from 1977 to 1980, in the same place.

"I joined the Army to see the world," she said, "and spent the whole time in Virginia."

Shadwick, whose military duties were split between working in a warehouse and operating a key punch on a computer, said she was happy with Wednesday's news that the Pentagon will soon give combat positions to women. Experts say the decision could lead to more than 230,000 new jobs for women by 2016.

Looking back more than 30 years, Shadwick doesn't think she would have wanted to go to combat. But she said she deserved the choice, at least.

Other local women who served in the armed forces don't agree.

Judy Baker, of Rock Spring, Ga., was a nurse in the Air Force from 1970 to 1974. She's heard reports about sexual abuse in the military, and she worries the problem will get worse if more women enlist. Only 240 rape cases in the military were prosecuted in 2011 out of more than 3,000 cases reported.

"The little woman side of me says, 'Nu-uh. We should stay home by the fire,'" Baker said. "But physically, I know they're as capable as men of [serving in combat]. I'm just saying that if you put men and women together, there's always a sex issue."

Penny Manna, who lives in Chattanooga and served in the Marines from 1962 to 1965, said women should have the right to fight, but their responsibilities are at home.

Patty Parks, on the other hand, said the Pentagon's announcement will be another important step for women's rights. She joined the Navy in 1974 as a computer technician and retired in 2003 as a commander, and she pointed out that some women in Afghanistan and Iraq already hold roles putting them close to the action. If a woman serves as a medic or as an intelligence officer, for example, she often will work in the front lines, she said.

Parks, of Ooltewah, said the military's decisions can serve as a precursor to other social changes.

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the military 16 years before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Perhaps the Pentagon's decision could indirectly lead to other higher wages for women in the workforce, she said.

"As society is willing to accept new norms," Parks said, "the military is often the first place you see those changes."

Meanwhile, Gloria Gray, of Hixson, said her gender already has proven it's ability to handle combat.

"We do everything else," said Gray, who set up the projector that played training films when she was in the Air Force from 1969 to 1970.

"We might as well have the choice to go into combat," Gray said. "Anyone who's seen a mother protect her child knows we can fight. You don't mess with a momma."

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