Former Senator James Webb published an article, “Women Can’t Fight,” on Nov. 1, 1979 in the Washingtonian magazine. At that time, the first classes integrated with females were just six months from graduation at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), the U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis), and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Sen. Webb, a 1968 graduate of the Naval Academy, served in the U.S. Marine Corps and is a highly-decorated combat veteran who received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star (2), and the Purple Heart (2) for his service in Vietnam. Around the time of his published article, Webb had been an instructor at the Naval Academy.
Combat veterans are afforded honor and prestige at service academies as future officers seek to learn from those who have “been there and done that.” I respect Sen. Webb for his service in uniform.
On March 30, the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association was poised to honor Sen. Webb as a Distinguished Graduate Award recipient. One of the three primary reasons to honor a Naval Academy DGA is because of their “personal character which epitomizes the traits we expect in our officer corps.”
Regrettably, Sen. Webb has never repudiated his opposition to women serving in the military, not while he served as Secretary of the Navy, nor while serving as a U.S. Senator, nor while campaigning as a Presidential candidate. Public outcry resulted in the withdrawal of this award.
“Why should I care?” you might ask.
I hope you care because of me and my story – and the story of my female peers. Today, I am your nearly 50-year-old friend, a wife and a mom, who serves in her church and alongside women in her military communities—and who still struggles with the sting of bigotry.
Over thirty years ago, starting in July of 1985, I was one of those early trailblazers. As a female in the tenth class with women, I recognized that my journey had already been made easier by those in preceding classes. As a ring-wearing member of the “Women of the 80’s,” I completed the course set before me and graduated with ninety-three other women in the USNA Class of 1989.
As in every military crucible experience, nobody can finish the race by oneself.
For me, my survival coincided entirely with a personal faith journey as a Christ-follower as well as a sisterhood of my female classmates.
During Plebe Summer, a six-week indoctrination period, I went to Sunday School for the donuts and air-conditioning. On Labor Day weekend, having been granted permission to attend a “movement order” to a Christian retreat center, I dedicated my life in service to Jesus Christ.
The retreat had been sponsored by Officers’ Christian Fellowship (OCF) and I soon became a regular member of the OCF group at the Naval Academy. During my Plebe Year (freshman year), the OCF staff worker was retired Marine Colonel Paul Roush, who later left the OCF staff and joined the faculty at the Naval Academy as a professor of ethics.
COL Roush in 1997 published “A Tangled Web” as a response to Webb’s “Women Can’t Fight” article, which Roush called “the single greatest purveyor of degradation and humiliation on the basis of gender that academy women have had to endure.”
Roush went on to say,
Nothing so disadvantages a person as to be psychologically rejected by his
or her peers; to be told both blatantly and more subtly that you are not wanted;
to have your competence questioned… The consequences of that kind of
psychological sadism include evisceration [the gutting] of her self-esteem and
instruction of her peers that she is an inferior being; that she does not belong;
that she is a prime candidate for the “worthless” pile.
Many of our personal experiences from those four years are the stuff of “you’ve got to be kidding me” stories. For me, I experienced bigotry and sexism while on a ship for nearly six weeks of training as the only woman on board, when my credibility as a leader was completely undermined by a company-mate, or when trying to avoid another physical “pat down.”
I clung hard to the words of the apostle John that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). This light, Jesus, encouraged me to be faithful to take the next step and to face the next hurdle.
Over time, I began to understand that nothing could separate me from the love of God. Not physical weakness. Not academic struggle. Not moral confusion. Nothing.
With that understanding came an increasing desire to pursue excellence and to overcome evil with good. I tried to encourage others with notes. I took risks in coming alongside those more rejected than me. I prayed for wisdom for each day since each day had enough trouble of its own.
Last weekend, I was afforded the opportunity to speak to current female midshipmen who attended a USNA OCF retreat. I challenged them to keep short accounts lest they carry hurts for decades as I have done.
I rejoiced in hearing from one of the attendees who shared how she responded gracefully to an episode of sexism just a couple of days after this retreat.
And then came the awareness that Sen. Webb had been nominated to receive a DGA from my USNA Alumni Association—and I once again had to run hard after the Lord, trusting Him
… to heal the brokenhearted and bind up their (and my) wounds. (Psalm 147:3)
Oh how I need the Lord to lead me in the ways of righteousness and to not “get even” with those who have truly sinned against me in thought, word, and deed.
To wear a class ring is to say that I graduated from that particular institution. My Naval Academy class ring is inscribed on the inside with my name and “Psalm 139.” Read that Psalm and meditate on the richness of its 24 verses.
This month, as discussions swirl on social media about Sen. Webb and the DGA, I turn to verse 14, where King David, the writer of this Psalm, proclaims:
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well.
I rest in the assurance that I am a fearfully and wonderfully made woman who can (and did) fight. Wonderful are His works personified by my warrior sisterhood. And my soul is at ease as I stand in the shadow of the cross. This is my legacy.