In 1991 I began working on my first book, Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook.
I recalled the experience of getting up close to the U.S. Navy (they gave me unprecedented access) when I saw a disturbing film today that treated the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military. The Invisible War profiled a dozen women and a few men of the thousands who have been assaulted by their fellow soldiers and whose cases were then dismissed or left to languish by the powers that be. It showcased the suffering that results when women in the armed services experience this violation at the hands of people they see as their peers and brothers and (often) their commanders, the very people that are supposed to watch out for their interests.
The movie explored antecedents for the current situation, beginning with the Tailhook scandal of 1991. I’m not an expert on military rape but I do know something about that sordid case, having covered it for Tailspin. At an outrageous, hard-partying, booze-fueled convention of naval aviators at a Las Vegas Hilton, women who were officers and jet jocks found themselves groped – too polite a term – by their peers. There was an endless corridor, a line up infamous as The Gauntlet. Afterwards, the victims were scapegoated and ignored when they went to seek redress for their experiences.
The story of that night only got grosser as I learned more about it. But one aspect grew more arresting and eventually took over the narrative. That was the issue that has now once again exploded on the front pages, the question of women in combat. In 1992, when I wrote Tailspin, people in the U.S. Navy were puzzling out whether or how more positions in the service should be opened to women on the front lines. It seemed to me that the link between the two subjects was obvious: sexual harrassment, the bane of the Tailhook scandal, would diminish as women were integrated into military roles that would earn them increased respect from men, roles at the heart of the warfighting business.
In the post-Tailhook era, the Navy changed its policies on recruitment, retention, training and selection of occupational fields to be “gender neutral to the maximum extent possible.” Women could now serve in all combat positions except SEAL commando units and submarines, and the top brass was putting them on aircraft carriers methodically, albeit slowly. Of course, women had long served honorably, and they had earned this expanded role.
This has been a thorny issue for feminists. As Gloria Steinem was quoted recently in The New York Times, “We kept saying we hope no one will be in combat, but, if they are, women should be there, too.”
One person I profiled in Tailspin still speaks to me – in my thoughts, not in reality, because she died as the book was going to press.
Kara Hultgreen trained as an F-14 Tomcat pilot alongside men when she didn’t know if she would ever get to serve as anything other than as an instructor. Now that the Navy had changed its rules for women, she would get the chance to go out on real missions. Hultgreen was rangy and brash and smart, like so many of her male counterparts in Navy flying. I had spent hours with her, much because so many people I had interviewed said, Kara, she’s the one you should talk to. She’s the real thing. A real Top Gun. Her handle was The Hulk. Now she had carrier qualified (brought her F-14 to land on the deck of the carrier with its tailhook catching the wire stretched across the deck) and she’d joined the Black Lions of VF-213, who were getting ready to deploy to the Persian Gulf.
I was writing the last few pages of Tailspin, writing about Kara and the future of naval aviation’s women, when I opened the Times on October 26, 1994 to see her picture. During a practice run over the Pacific, as Hultgreen was readying her plane to land, the aircraft suddenly lost altitude, dropping into the sea, and she was not able to eject in time. “She was a smart girl. I know she knew the chances she was taking,” said her grandmother.
Women in today’s military know the chances they are taking. But the 20 percent of female veterans who say they have been sexually assaulted shouldn’t have to take that kind of risk. Symbolism matters. Once equal opportunities for women as warfighters open in all fields, from the Army’s front lines to submarines’ cramped quarters, they’ll get the respect they deserve.