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New DACOWITS Chair Discusses Priorities, Shares Concerns

By Staff Sgt. Alicia K. Borlik, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 1999 – "If it is an important and critical issue for military women and men, we're not giving up," said Mary Wamsley, 1999 chairwoman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

Wamsley is the newest leader of DACOWITS, a group of civilian leaders who for 50 years have served as the defense secretary's eyes and ears, working on issues of concern to women in the military, she said.

"We get our issues from the visits we have with women and men in field and fleet," she said. "Because those issues change from year-to-year, day-to-day, our goals and objectives change. It's a very fluid process."

Two issues DACOWITS is currently studying are opening more combat jobs to women and allowing the services to train as they fight. For example, during the committee's fall conference last year, members recommended to the defense secretary that the Army open Multiple Launch Rocket System fields to women. Two members went to Fort Sill, Okla., home of the missile system, to make the point. The committee also recommended the Army and Air Force open special operations forces' helicopter specialties to women.

Air Force officials concurred with the special forces recommendation but cannot act alone because of the multiservice nature of the field. Army officials still hold that the 1994 direct ground combat assignment rule closes both fields to women.

The rule states service restrictions may include "where units and positions are doctrinally required to physically collocate and remain with direct ground combat units that are closed to women" and "where units are engaged in long-range reconnaissance operations and special operations forces missions."

Based on numerous briefings and investigations, however, DACOWITS does not believe the rule precludes opening these positions, Wamsley said.

On the gender-integrated training issue, DACOWITS last spring recommended to the secretary that he continue to support the service chiefs and the way the services train, whether gender- integrated or segregated.

"Our position is you [the services] are the people who know best how to train," Wamsley said. "On our installation visits, what we heard from everyone across the spectrum is, 'Let us train the way we know how best to train.' The position of the [service] chiefs is, 'We train the way we fight.' It doesn't make any sense to change that."

DACOWITS gathers its information by members visiting installations throughout the year. The schedule of 1999 visits will be released March 1 and will include training bases for the third consecutive year. During each two-day visit, members meet with 16 to 18 groups of military personnel broken down by rank and sex. The committee separates members this way to narrow the focus on issues affecting certain groups.

First-termers' concerns differ greatly from those in mid-career or nearing retirement, Wamsley noted. "What you often see among younger enlisted are concerns about recreational facilities," she said. "After about 10 years, you have developed a family and are set into a career path. Your focus changes. What concerns you changes. You get older and you're concerned about benefits, retirement and medical care changes."

DACOWITS members open every group session with the same two questions, "How are you doing?" and "If you had five minutes with the secretary of defense, what would you say?"

Feedback is critical, Wamsley said. Some commanders express amazement that their people open up to visiting committee members, she said, but there's a simple reason for that.

"I'm convinced that what comes across is that we care," she said. "We aren't beholden to anyone, so if an issue comes up that needs to be dealt with, it may not matter whose toes get stepped on."

She also wants to clear up any misperception that the civilian committee members are militarily naive. "We're not some group of civilians running wild with military issues," the soldier's daughter explained. "We have very strong, solid advice, counsel and guidance from military representatives and liaisons."

Wamsley brings 25 years of experience in civilian law enforcement to her position. "There are a tremendous number of similarities [between military and police women]," she said. "Everything from the way the uniform fits, the hours worked, difficulty breaking into male-dominant occupations and subspecialties -- I've seen women who've had to give up their careers because of constant deployments."

The greatest similarity, she noted, involves not just women, but all those who wear a uniform and provide what she calls an emergency critical service. "I don't think people appreciate us enough," the police chief said.

"When I go out on my visits, I always end saying, 'Thank you,' because I know I sleep very safely in my bed, pump cheap gas in my car because we have indeed provided those things via our military," she said.

This is Wamsley's third and final year with DACOWITS. The past two years she served on the forces development and utilization subcommittee, which identifies issues affecting the development and opportunities available to military women.

Wamsley enjoys working on DACOWITS because it allows her to get back with military people. "I recognize the dedication and heart and energy and commitment it takes," she said. "Being able to talk with our service people and feeling as if I can help make something better. That has been my favorite experience."

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