Women in fatigues are rare to see. In fact, the biggest face of women in the armed forces that we see often comes from movies or television and even then, we see them as the wives, girlfriends, or civilians coping with men at war. “A League of Their Own,” “Top Gun,” and most recently Lifetime’s television show “Army Wives” all place women in the context of the military.
Women have come a long way from the times when women serving our country consisted of growing gardens and becoming riveters. As of 2011, the Department of Defense reports that 14.6 percent of all soldiers serving on active duty are women. These women range from entry-level privates to high-ranking commanders – about 15 percent of these women hold officer titles within the branches.
Availability for positions for some branches are completely equal—the Air Force and Coast Guard let women attain 100% of all positions. However the Navy, Army, and the Marine corps offer 59%, 52%, and 20% respectively of all positions to women due to combat exclusion laws (which to this day is heavily contested in and out of the Armed Forces institution).
Despite actual military exclusion policies and even public disapproval of female participation, these sentiments do not stop some women from desiring careers in the Armed Forces.
Madelaine Estrabillo, a third year Anthropology student at UCLA, grew up in a naval family and it was her father’s dream for her to follow his path into the Navy through UCLA’s Naval ROTC. “Because I was the first child, my father wanted some one else to be in the military, because it had so many benefits. You get to go to the base, there’s no [sales] tax on anything,” she said. “He just wanted a better life for me.” Seeing her own father rise in the ranks and enjoying the naval lifestyle, Estrabillo made completing college and the ROTC program a goal in order to become a naval officer. “I was dead set on that… until I actually was in it!” Though percentages of female officers are very small, Estrabillo’s father still recognized her leadership potential. “He had seen so many Navy women,” said Estrabillo as she justified her father’s pressure on her. “He knew physically and mentally I could do it, but my heart wasn’t in it.” Though her decision disappointed her father, Estrabillo’s brother now carries their father’s wishes.
“You just know from people’s personalities and upbringing…I just wasn’t a good fit,” said Estrabillo. Though the program was not a good fit for her, other women thrive in the military setting.
Captain Karensa Foxx of the United States Army grew up in a home similar to Estrabillo’s – in a military family as the youngest of four children. However, seeing her father and siblings serve, she felt no pressure from her family but rather had a personal desire to join them. “I was seeking different colleges and knew that I wanted to commission as an officer, I didn’t just want to join the military,” said Foxx. She had intentions of joining the Army ROTC program in college at University of Southern Mississippi and serving her required service, but after completion she realized she loved the opportunities given to her and enjoyed leading her platoon.
“For the while I was the only female,” she recalled. “But as time went by, we may have gotten up to 10 females.” Despite being chosen as captain to lead many, her equals and superiors treated her not necessarily with negative feelings but definitely regarded her as a “little sister” or one to be protected.
Captain Foxx saw no blatant sex disparities in terms of duties or performance. In fact, she recalled men acting chivalrous toward the few female colleagues. “We are an army of one where it shouldn’t matter what you’re doing, but at the same time a lot of men still have traditions as far as what a man should do and what a woman should do.”
After being deployed to several tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Captain Foxx now lives in Studio City with her husband and baby boy, employed as an ROTC Enrollment Officer.
She decorates her office to incorporate both her military accolades as well as mementoes from her personal life, revealing her officer side as well as her personal side. She described her second deployment as being the hardest because she was leaving behind her husband, who is a civilian.
Now that Captain Foxx has a baby boy, she made it very clear that her family comes first over her job. “I’m going to look at what’s available and what best meets the means of my family,” said Foxx about her next career move. She is hopeful about the army’s ability to accommodate her family in terms of guaranteed childcare (a privilege not afforded to many civilian working mothers). The saying “the military takes care of its own” hold true in terms of family of the soldiers – according to the National Military Family Organization, the military provides families with a Family Readiness Group (FRG), disaster preparedness, educational opportunities, and financial counseling.
Regardless of the sacrifices and stresses our armed forces face while serving our nation, it’s hard to ignore the brave women who cross one of the most difficult boundaries.