Sisters in Arms: Military Alumnae Find Fulfillment in Uniform
With dust storms swirling above, explosives dropping in the evenings, and the Army rolling in, Air Force Major Kimberly Calcutt McQueen ’99 sat atop Saddam Hussein’s former private terminal at the Baghdad airport in the summer of 2007, maintaining the communications network for Air Force personnel deployed there and preparing to set up communications services for a newly arrived Army battalion. In the next four months she would connect the Iraqi police force with U.S. forces and expand General Petraeus’s communications network.
Despite the danger and pressure of the assignment, McQueen relished the opportunity to use her skills. “The military places a high value on knowledge and advanced education,” says McQueen, “but we spend so much time training that sometimes it’s nice to actually get out there and do the job.”
Despite the training, McQueen admits that she never expected to find herself dodging mortars at the Baghdad Airport,or taking shelter from falling bombs in a bunker before continuing her communications networking tasks.
McQueen confesses that it was the scholarship money offered in exchange for participating in the ROTC unit at UMass that initially drew her into the military. Her plan was to gain a few years of practical experience and retire to the private technology sector. Instead,she says, she found a community where her skills are highly valued, her professional development is encouraged, and she’s given the opportunity to lead.
After ten years in the military, McQueen says it’s a thrill to put on her uniform every day. “I feel empowered. I feel a sense of purpose. Most of all I feel like I’m making a difference in the world,and I can’t imagine a life I’d want more.”
A Life Like No Other
According to a recent Rasmussen Poll, nearly80 percent of Americans now view the US military favorably. Despite the high level of support, if you ask most civilians what life is like in the military, they conjure images only of boot camp and Iraq.
The advent of an all-volunteer service and the elimination of ROTC programs on many private college campuses following the Vietnam War created a gap between military personnel and the average citizen.For Mount Holyoke women in uniform, this gap can feel like a chasm. While their classmates enter civilian careers as lawyers, teachers, and investment bankers,at least three-dozen Mount Holyoke alumnae are currently pursuing professional opportunities in the military.
“If you told me while I was at MHC that I’d end up in the Army, I would have laughed and said you were crazy,” says Army Major Catherine Kimball-Eayrs ’93 (left), who entered Mount Holyoke with dreams of becoming a doctor. After failing to land a spot at one of her top-choice medical schools, she considered her options.
“My dad was a member of the military medical corps, but I never connected the military with a professional career,” she recalls. “After looking into the Uniformed Medical School, I realized that the military could be the path to the career I wanted as a physician.”
Kimball-Eayrs graduated in 1999 with an MD and an Army commission. She expected to complete her required seven years of service in return for her medical degree, leave the military, and work as a civilian physician. Ten years later, she is still in the Army, and is a pediatrician and working mother. Having found increased professional opportunities in the Army, Kimball-Eayrs recently recommitted to another tour.
Beyond the Battlefield
While popular culture associates military life almost solely with combat operations, most military careers happen away from the battlefield. Teams of professionals, from engineers to accountants, provide the infrastructure key to achieving the military’s mission.Others address the challenges of providing everything from health care to groceries for some 1.5 million active-duty personnel and their families.
For example, in her role as director ofbase medical services at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany, Air Force Lt.Colonel Melanie Carino ’92 (above) coordinates the care of more than 4,000 U.S.military and government personnel and their dependents.
“I am effectively running a branch of amanaged-care organization,” says Carino, noting that with a budget of over $37billion in 2009, the military healthcare system is one of the largest in the US.
Increased career opportunities for women in traditionally male dominated fields is another benefit of military life,alumnae say. A computer scientist and communications systems specialist, McQueen explains that, because evaluation methods are uniform and focused specifically on the quality of your work, the requirements for advancement are more objective in the military than in civilian jobs.
Says McQueen, “You’re given a tremendous opportunity to shine when you know that your success is based on your performance. That’s exactly the sort of meritocracy I learned to aspire to at Mount Holyoke.”
On the Front Lines
The military’s current strategic plans focus its mission increasingly on humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. From combating yellow fever in Central America to providing relief to the victims of the 2004South Asian tsunami to distributing food aid in Africa, according to the State Department, the U.S. military engages in humanitarian projects in over 100countries in any given year. However, with two wars currently under way, combat operations are still a core element of military life.
Kimball-Eayrs experienced the front lines directly when she deployed to the infamous Iraqi “triangle of death” in September 2006 to provide medical support to an Army combat brigade. The deploymentwas not only an opportunity for Kimball-Eayrs to sharpen her medical skills. As one of 150 women in a group of more than 5,000 and the most senior female, it also offered a chance to demonstrate her leadership abilities.
“You can’t back down in that sort of situation. People are relying on you for more than just your skills; you also need to set an example,” she says. “I drew on the confidence and strength that I developed at Mount Holyoke not only to succeed as the lone female in the group,but also to serve as a leader.”
Finding Work-Life Balance
Day-to-day life in the military can be difficult. Deployments are coming on shorter notice and lasting longer, budget cuts require personnel to do more with less, and duty stations are typically changedevery two to three years, keeping many constantly on the move.
“It’s very hard to commit to staying in the military as a mom,” says Kimball-Eayrs. “You can’t escape the fact that you’re going to be sent away from home for extended periods of time.” In this instance, the equity in performance standards described by McQueen can create an extra burden for soldiers with families. “If you want to get promoted, youneed to do the same things as any other officer; that includes deployments,”says Kimball- Eayrs, whose fourteen-month deployment to Iraq in September 2006came when her children were three years and thirteen months old.
For Major Shawna Doherty ’98 (USAFR),that lack of control over time at home was the primary reason she transferred to the reserves and a civilian job. “I expected to serve a full career in the active-duty military,” says Doherty, who was commissioned as an Air Force officer following her Mount Holyoke and ROTC graduation. Upon returning from a deployment to Afghanistan, Doherty married a civilian and realized that the stability she wantedto build a family wasn’t in the cards if she continued her military career.
Now a consultant, Doherty confesses that the most difficult part of the transition from active-duty to civilian life relates to how she’s viewed as a woman in the workplace. As a military officer, Doherty was guaranteed the respect accorded her rank. As a civilian, she has struggled to achieve that same equality.
Doherty also misses the strong sense of community in the military, and what she describes as a culture focused ondeveloping individuals. “I always felt that I was surrounded by people who wanted me to succeed when I was at Mount Holyoke, and I found the same culture echoed in the military.”
Leaving Mount Holyoke’s Mark
Despite the increasing opportunities for women in the military described by alumnae, there are still chances to break barriers. Women account for just 15 percent of the force, and post- Vietnam-era female officers are only beginning to fill the ranks of generals and admirals.
“Mount Holyoke women have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to shaping military culture, because we’re smart and ambitious,”says Doherty. However, officers must leave personal politics at the door to do their jobs effectively. “Members of the military don’t make policy; that’s up to civilian leaders,” notes McQueen. “Our job is to support those decisions; we implement that policy.” That’s difficult at times for an overachieving Mount Holyoke woman, particularly since the college trains students to advocate for their opinions.
Even though the alumnae interviewed credit their Mount Holyoke education for their military success, on the whole they agree that the MHC community’s support for their career choice is limited.They said professors had refused them recommendations and some classmates and faculty had taunted them for choosing the military. One alumna said a classmatespat on her the day she wore her ROTC uniform to a history class.
Like many private colleges, Mount Holyoke does not maintain an ROTC unit on campus; students wishing to participate join the unit at UMass. Although military representatives do come to campus, some may have been discouraged from recruiting by Mount Holyoke’s policy of asking all organizations recruiting on campus to complete an acknowledgment of nondiscrimination or to discuss with students why they can’t sign the statement. Doherty argues that the lack of support at MHC for military careers limits graduates’ opportunities for jobs and inhibits their understanding of the military. “Members of the military aren’t born in Petri dishes,”she says; “they reflect the values of the communities they come from.”
Answering the Call to Service
Beyond the professional possibilities,alumnae say they serve in the military because they find a sense of honor and purpose in serving their country.
Describing how she was inspired by Mary Lyon’s call to public service, Carino says that she wanted to serve a cause greater than herself. She considered leaving the military several times topursue a larger paycheck in the private sector, but realized that a higher salary would not equal the personal satisfaction of doing a job she describes as important.
“I realized that the culture and the values of the organization were as important to me as the work,” says Carino. Describing the military as a nonprofit organization, she argues that service members give full effort to their jobs not to improve the bottom line, but because so many people rely on them. “In the Air Force we follow a set of core values:integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do,” says Carino.“Our entire mission is to serve others.”
—By Rachel Kerestes ’99
Rachel Kerestes ’99 is a freelance writer and political consultant. She lives in San Diego with her husband, an officer in the US Navy. This article appeared in the summer 2009 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
A-ten-SHUN, MHCers! Here’s More about MHC Alumnae and Other Women in theMilitary
- To sample 1993 MHC alumna Catherine Kimball-Eayrs’s life as a military physician, check out her blog posts in the “comments” section of this article.
- To read previous Quarterly stories about, and see photos of, other alumnae in the military, click here.
- For links to information on women in the US military from the Revolutionary War to oral histories of current servicewomen, click here.
- To read profiles of recent Frances Perkins students who are veterans, click here.
More about MHC Women in the Military
This past April, Sybil Bailey Stockdale ’46 took part in the commissioning ceremony for the missile destroyer Stockdale, a new warship named after her late husband, Vice Admiral James Stockdale. Read the media coverage and see photos here.
A piece in the winter1997 Alumnae Quarterly profiled 1994 MHC classmates Fran Mackey and Laurie Shyloski, who had trained at the same Army flight school and had just both beenpromoted to first lieutenant rank. Read the story here.
Here’s what they’re up to these days:
Laurie Shyloski Morgado:“My family is currently stationed at Siena College in New York. I left the service just shy of 10 years after I commanded a Blackhawk helicopter company at Fort Hood, Texas. Now my 3 kids—Isabelle 5, Madeleine 4, and Ian, 1—keep me super busy. I look forward to starting another interesting career in a few years.
Fran Mackey Gill: “I ended up spending nine years in the military, where I met my wonderful husband Clair. We have a wonderful two- year-old son, Joshua. I’m just finishing up my intern year as an emergency medicine physician in Richmond,Virginia. It has been a very busy, humbling, incredible journey and I’m trying my best to balance my roles—wife, mother, and physician.”
Heather Lixey ’06 was a ROTC cadet and self-described “Army brat” when the Quarterly interviewed her in 2003for an article about student reactions to the then-new Iraq War. Today she’s a paralegal for the American Red Cross in Washington, DC. Read the summer 2003 Quarterly story here.
Links About Women in the Military
Thanks to Rachel Kerestes’99 for this information.
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation
The history of women in the armed forces began more than 220 years ago with the women who served during the American Revolution, and continues through the present day. The Women’s Memorial honors all the women who have served courageously,selflessly, and with dedication in times of conflict and in times of peace—women whose achievements have for too long been unrecognized or ignored.
History Archive of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation
This site offers an overview of the history of women who have served in or with the US Armed Forces and resources for further study. It also includes hundreds of oral histories.
Women’s Memorial History Archive
The Women’s Research and Education Institute—Womenin the Military Project
The Women in the Military project was established in 1990 to provide information and policy analysis on issues important to military women and women veterans and to government policy makers,scholars, the media, the media, and the general public. In conjunction with the project’s mission, WREI publishes Women inthe Military: Where They Stand, now in its fifth edition.
Information and analysis is made available to Congress, the executive branch, academia, the media, and members of the public with an interest in military women.
GAO: Women in the Military—Career Progression Nota Current Problem but Concerns Remain
This report is from 1989and, while dated, it finds no significant impediments to women being promotedat rates similar to men. Civilian and military leaders have since addressed many of the concerns identified in this report.
GAO: Gender Issues—Trends in the Occupational Distribution of Military Women (September 1999)
From the report: In 1993 and 1994, significant changes in legislation and policy allowed women to fly combat aircraft, serveon combat ships, and serve in more combat-related occupations. As of September1998, 90 percent of the services’ career fields were open to women, and 80percent of the services’ 1,425,000 positions were open to women. The major areas closed to women include infantry, armor, special forces/SEAL, and submarine warfare. All are associated with ground combat, except submarine warfare, which remains closed due to the cost of changing habitability conditions.
In these college communications-produced profiles, you’ll meet three Frances Perkins scholars who are veterans.
Read the recent New York Times series on women and the military here. Their “Women at Arms: Valor Under Fire” series “explores how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have profoundly redefined the role of women in the military.
August 31, 2009