Making a Place for NATO's Military Women
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 8, 1998 Two American military women are on trial here at NATO headquarters and they welcome the challenge.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Sarah Garcia and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michele Tyler have three years to prove the Euro-Atlantic security alliance needs an office devoted to women in the armed forces.
Garcia, of San Angelo, Texas, and Tyler, of Pea Ridge, Ark., joined NATO's international military staff in January. Garcia heads NATO's new Office on Women in NATO Forces; Tyler serves as information management director. Their mission: to serve as a link between NATO leaders and the NATO Committee on Women in the NATO Forces.
"The committee serves as an advisory body to the NATO leadership, to the Military Committee and member nations on critical issues affecting women in the armed forces," Garcia explained. "Three subcommittees deal with equity in leadership, quality of life and utilization and development."
The committee, formed by senior military women in 1961 but not formally recognized by NATO until 1976, was the driving force behind establishing the office, Garcia said.
"Committee members wanted an office at NATO headquarters on the international military staff to be the conduit between the committee and NATO leaders and the Military Committee," she said. "In May 1997, the Military Committee reached consensus to set up an office for three years to evaluate whether it merits permanency."
Operations in Bosnia emphasized the increasing role of women in NATO, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcelite Harris stated in the September-October 1997 issue of NATO Review. She chaired the women's committee from 1995 to June 1997 and sought an office at NATO to "share information on programs and techniques that create harmony in the work place." Now retired, Harris served last year on Nancy Kassebaum Baker's Federal Advisory Committee on Gender- Integrated Training and Related Issues.
Women primarily serve in noncombatant positions in the majority of NATO countries, Harris said, but some member nations have gone a step further, allowing women to serve in almost all military specialties. The United States, the United Kingdom and Norway are models for effective assignment of women in nontraditional specialties, she said.
"While some countries are still evolving in the way their military forces are staffed, they must prepare their forces for the time when they will work with women in a combined force effort," Harris stated. "To fail to accept women in senior positions or as equal co-workers is to fail to make maximum use of the strength of NATO military forces."
As a result of the committee's efforts, NATO authorities agreed to set up the women's office on a trial basis. The United States volunteered to fund two staff positions, and U.S. military officials requested nominees from the ranks. Garcia and Tyler competed with Army, Navy and Marine Corps nominees for the newly created jobs. Both women offered specific skills needed for the ground-breaking undertaking.
Garcia, with 14 years' Air Force experience, previously commanded Air Force Office of Special Investigations units at Reese Air Force Base, Texas, and at Langley Air Force Base, Va. She coordinated Federal Women's Month programs and was honored as a federal woman employee by the Daughters of the American Revolution while at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.
Tyler acquired information management system knowledge during her 15 years in the Air Force. Her job of setting up a system at NATO to store and retrieve data is interesting and appealed to her as "something that will make a difference," she said.
For nations without noncommissioned officers, Tyler will also serve as a role model. "Through my job, countries may see the value added in having enlisted women," she said. "It doesn't have to be just women officers working in the medical corps. We can perform a lot of useful functions they don't give to officers."
Both women see their new jobs as twofold: They support the committee by serving as action officers and providing continuity, and they provide NATO with information on women. "We'll provide advice, facilitate networking and set up a repository of data," Garcia said.
Right now, the two Americans said they are "getting smart" on NATO itself and on the military women who serve in 13 of its 16 members' armed forces. Italy and Luxembourg have no military women, although the Italians are considering allowing women into military academies. Iceland, the 16th nation, has no armed forces.
Based on 1997 annual committee reports, Tyler said, women make up the following percentages in members' armed forces: United States, 13.2; Canada, 10.7; France, 7.5; United Kingdom, 7; Belgium and the Netherlands, 6.9 each; Denmark and Norway, 5.1; Greece, 3.8; Spain, 1.9; and Portugal, 4.98. Two countries reported less than 1 percent: Germany has about 3,500 women in uniform and Turkey, about 600.
"In some NATO-nation militaries, women still play a minor role due to constitutional and cultural restraints, while in others, combatant units -- armor, artillery, infantry -- are open to women," Garcia said. "Norway's navy, for example, now has its first woman submarine commander. Our U.S. Navy has just approved five women to command combatant ships. A lot of the things the U.S. has experienced, other nations are just starting to go through themselves."
Promoting U.S. views or policies, however, is not their goal, Garcia and Tyler stressed. "We're U.S. military personnel, but we're serving as international officers as well," Garcia said. "We're not going to force-feed any nation that they have to do things a certain way because that's the way we do it in the United States."
Garcia and Tyler aim to help NATO officials and member nations answer questions. Where do women stand within NATO nations? What types of units are open to women? Are they kept in traditional roles such as administration, personnel and the medical corps, and if so, why? Are there programs for equality? Are women getting promoted?
"If one country wants to establish a program on integrating women, for example, they may come to us and ask, how does such and such country do it?" Garcia said. "We'll keep track of resolutions to issues like this."
For example, recruiting and retaining women have been problems for some countries, Garcia noted. "The Danish military has a retention problem. They have no women higher than an O-4. They have a lot of lieutenants to majors, but for some reason, they leave the service. Why don't they stay?"
Physical fitness, quality of life, child care, women in combat, sexual harassment - the new office also will be a research center for military women's issues. Garcia and Tyler plan to collect statistics, national reports and other related information from each nation.
"What may prove to be the most difficult part of the job is to be the honest broker for NATO on whether this office should continue past the three years," Garcia said. "We have to market our office because we're so new. People within NATO don't even know we're here."
Garcia and Tyler literally started from scratch, arriving here to find an office equipped with a desk, a chair and a phone. They have since acquired a computer and a second desk and chair. A second phone is due any day.
"It is a humongous challenge," a chuckling Garcia admitted. "It's a challenge not only to learn about NATO -- neither one of us has ever worked a multiservice, multinational job. It's one I look forward to. I don't believe it's insurmountable, but yes, it will be a haul."
Tyler agreed. "Three years isn't that long when you start with a chair and a desk," she said. "Things move a little bit slower here than we're used to, but nothing is insurmountable. It just calls for patience."
Garcia pondered the future. "Are we going to be able to achieve everything we want in the three years? Probably not, if we're realistic. But will we make a huge dent? Hopefully. The goal is to see if we have value, and that will depend on the two individuals in this office. If there is no value, we have to swallow our pride and say we did the best we could, but it's not feasible for whatever reason."
At present, Garcia is making the rounds, meeting face-to face with military representatives of each NATO nation. So far, she said, reactions have been favorable. "We're also working with the new invitees," she said.
The limited numbers of women in the armed forces of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic serve primarily in medical and other support units. "I've met with military liaison officers from each of the three invitees," Garcia said. "They're excited about integrating women further and becoming involved with the committee." Invitee representatives are being included in the next annual committee conference being held in Brussels June 2 to 5, Garcia noted.
The women's committee fully supports the new office, Garcia said. "They're happy to have a central office to deal with specific issues, provide data and points of contact." What decision NATO will reach regarding the new office is the big unknown.
"We hope the Military Committee will decide around the two- year mark whether it will be a permanent office," Garcia said. "The Military Committee is open enough to see if it will work, and that's all we can ask for at this point. We have our foot in the door. Hopefully, we'll be able to contribute to NATO and its mission, and they will see the office is a value-added commodity."