Army Reserve Women Weather "The Storm"
By 1st Lt. Steven J. Alvarez, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 20, 2001 Army Reserve Maj. Gena Bonini was a young lieutenant when she packed her bags and headed for Saudi Arabia more than 10 years ago. Her forward support battalion would deploy her to support a maneuver battalion from one of the more traditional and historical units of the U.S. Army, the 1st Cavalry Division.
She was one of several officers assigned to battalions as "log overwatch" officers, a position that requires a logistics officer to provide instantaneous communications with division in the event any logistical issues need immediate attention.
"I remember when my boss told the maneuver guy that he was going to assign me as the log overwatch officer. My boss said something like, 'Sorry she's a female, but that's all I've got.' I just smiled at that," Bonini said. "The maneuver guy said he didn't care. I was the only female in a whole battalion of males."
Initially, the men resented Bonini's presence. She eventually won them over by doing her job and doing it well. She did what officers do: She took care of soldiers.
"I partnered with the command sergeant major, and he and I went on special supply raids -- I mean missions," Bonini said jokingly. "We were able to get every soldier in the battalion brand new hunting-type knives. I personally didn't understand the popularity of the item, but all the guys thought they were the end-all and be-all of being a tough guy. They just had to have these big -- we're talking 12-inch-long -- knives that strapped to their legs. We got those and extra goodies, like sleeping mats. Pretty soon, everyone knew me."
More than 26,000 women served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, according to the U.S. Army Center for Military History. Women accounted for 17 percent of Army reservists in Saudi Arabia at the height of the conflict. All told, women represented more than 8.6 percent of the Army's deployed force, and Desert Storm would be the largest deployment of military women in U.S. history.
Another of the thousands deployed to Southwest Asia was Maj. Deborah Gilmore of the 94th Regional Support Command in Devens, Mass. A first lieutenant 10 years ago, Gilmore stepped off an Air Force C-5 aircraft carrying her Army Reserve unit into Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and immediately started doing what executive officers do. She began to direct troops unloading the plane.
Immediately she noticed the grueling Saudi heat, but something else beat down on her heavier than the scorching sun. It was the stares from the Saudi men.
"I remember the astonished looks of the Saudi military as I gave orders," Gilmore said. "They didn't understand why I was giving orders, but even more, they couldn't comprehend why the men were listening."
President Harry S Truman opened the doors for military women of the future when he signed Public Law 625, the Women's Armed Services Act of 1948. More than 40 years later, women like Bonini and Gilmore and thousands of others would play an instrumental role in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
Operation Desert Storm redefined how America perceived its reserve forces, but it also benchmarked how far the military would let women participate in war. Federal law prohibits Navy and Air Force women from serving in direct combat roles. The Army has only an internal policy that parallels federal law. The Army combat exclusion policy prohibits women in direct combat roles, but it doesn't necessarily keep them from harm's way.
"Women proved that they were able to work alongside their male counterparts and get the job done. The ability to do this in an extremely different culture that at times was not particularly friendly to women was also a big accomplishment," Gilmore said. "The Gulf War also showed that combat support and combat service support jobs such as logistics can be just as dangerous as the traditional infantry roles."
Three women, two of them reservists, were among the Americans killed Feb. 25, 1991, when an Iraqi Scud missile destroyed their barracks in Dhahran, 200 miles from the Kuwaiti border. In the course of the war, two other women would die in action, one in a helicopter crash and the other in an anti-personnel mine explosion. In all, 19 women were wounded in action and two were taken as prisoners of war. Three women were nonbattle fatalities and 13 suffered nonbattle injuries, according to Army data.
A 1991 Associated Press poll on women in combat found that 56 percent of those surveyed felt military women should participate in the war and 39 percent said no. Although 35 percent believed men and women were equally suited for combat, 61 percent believed men were better qualified. While 31 percent believed it acceptable to send women with young children to the Gulf, 64 percent said no.
"I think culturally, gender is becoming less and less important. I think gender in general will have less and less of an impact on personality, personal and professional development in the future," said Bonini, now a systems analyst with the Office of the Chief, Army Reserve, in Washington.
"I am very proud of my service in the Gulf War and I do believe that I have opened the door for other women to follow me," Gilmore said. "I believe that the role of women will continue to increase in the military in the future. As the public sees women serving and succeeding in roles, there will be more public acceptance. Today, we see women who are commanders and women who serve in other leadership roles where, in the past, they may have served in strictly support roles or staff positions."
Bonini thinks that others before her were more instrumental in changing the perception of women as contributing to the armed forces.
"I think 'Rosie the Riveter' has done more for the image of women serving their country than any one or even the whole group of women soldiers were able to do in Desert Storm," Bonini said. Things might be different had something big happened involving a woman or women, she noted.
"As it is, though, most of the events I'm aware of are ones where women's roles were downplayed," she said. "As a sub- culture, we're far away ahead of industry. I have many friends in the civilian sector, and from what they say, I think the Army is one of the most fair organizations for women. But, like I said, we have a ways to go."
Gilmore said many of her civilian counterparts are interested and amazed at her role as an Army Reserve officer. In that way, they're like the Saudi soldiers who gawked at her.
"Sometimes they can't believe that the person working in the cubicle close to them is actually a major in the Army Reserve," she said.
Bonini and Gilmore both advanced during their Gulf deployments. Assigned as executive officer in the 324th Data Processing Unit, Gilmore assumed command just prior to the ground war and held it through the unit's return home in June 1991.
"One of the things I have seen change over the last 10 years is the fact that there are a lot more women in field-grade positions," Gilmore said. "I am seeing women mentors where even 10 years ago there were not many. To me, this is an extremely positive thing and key to developing future women leaders."
Bonini was promoted to captain atop a tank in front of the entire battalion. She was treated like any of the other soldier in the unit.
"I must admit I felt very proud," she said. "As a woman I've changed. I've grown. I've matured. I've had to make choices and sacrifices and learn lessons along the way. I believe I'm tougher and stronger because of my experiences in the Army. I'm proud of the work I did over there."
Bonini doesn't believe the Army discriminates against women.
"I think the opposite is true. There aren't a lot of females in the Army. We add a different view and I think that's important to any organization that wants to get better," she said. "The Army seems big enough to accommodate all types really."
(First Lt. Steven J. Alvarez is assigned to Public Affairs and Liaison Directorate Task Force 10, Office of the Chief, Army Reserve, in Washington.)