AMU Editor's Pick Military Original Veterans

Female Servicemembers: The Military Life from 2 Perspectives

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By Dr. Wanda Curlee
Department Chair, Business Administration

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak to Major Dannielle Flanigan-Noyes (USAF-Ret.). She and I had a candid chat about the military and women.

While Major Flanigan-Noyes served from 1998 to 2020, I served from 1978 to 1993, active and reserve. Has the military changed for women since the late ‘70s? Has it changed since the mid-2000s?

The short answer is yes and no. Although we both served in the military, our experiences were different.

Serving in the Navy

I served in the U.S. Navy as an Intelligence Officer. I was the fourth woman to go through Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, and there were two women in my class.

This program is now defunct; it was put in place during the Vietnam War. I graduated and was sent to Intelligence School in Denver, Colorado.

There were three women in the intelligence class. One of the women graduates went to the Naval Investigative Service, and two of us went to Patrol Squadrons (which used aircraft to hunt Russian submarines).

I was assigned to VP-10, Patrol Squadron 10, in Brunswick, Maine. I deployed immediately to Bermuda, and I was the only woman in the squadron. My next squadron had only three women officers and no enlisted women.

Serving in the Air National Guard

Major Flanigan-Noyes entered the New York Air National Guard as an E-2 or Airman. She was in the medical corps, which was about 50% women at the time.

While she was doing extra duty one weekend, the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers were attacked on September 11, 2001. Major Flanigan-Noyes became full-time from 2001 to 2004.

Major Flanigan-Noyes realized later that she wanted to go the officer route. She received her bachelor’s degree and applied for the Counter-Drug Program.

She was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 2004, later having the opportunities to be a Health Administrator, an Operations Officer, and a Regional Officer. As a Regional Officer, Major Flanigan-Noyes oversaw 26 counties in New York. During her last six years in military service, she was a policy analyst in Washington, DC.

How the Navy’s Treatment of Female Servicemembers Has Changed Over the Years

In my first operational unit, the Navy decided to see if enlisted women would work in a deployable unit. The test was considered a success.

Instead of senior enlisted women, the squadron started to receive women straight from boot camp. Soon, there were several servicemembers who became pregnant. Since I was the only female officer, it was considered my job to take care of these female servicemembers, although they were not in my department.

When I was in the Navy, it was a difficult time for officers and enlisted women who became pregnant. If you became pregnant, you had to leave the service. However, that rule changed shortly after I joined.

Also, there was no uniform for those who were pregnant. In addition, many women thought the Navy would allow them to take their baby to the barracks (where unmarried enlisted troops lived) or that the Navy would provide them with childcare services. Many of these women had to request a hardship discharge or ask their relatives to take care of their child.

This area of the military has changed dramatically. Women who have a baby now have four to six weeks off.

Being pregnant is considered a medical condition; you are expected to heal and come back to work. The military also helps families with kids to find childcare at a reasonable cost.

For instance, Major Flanigan-Noyes had three months of maternity leave after the birth of her baby, and her husband had 20 days of paternity leave. Paternity leave had not even been considered when I was in the Navy.

In the 1970s through the 1980s, there were traditional roles for women in the military. Women served in healthcare (such as nurses) and in personnel; they did what was traditionally thought of as “women’s work.”

Although there were women pilots who proved themselves in WWII, it was uncommon to see women pilots during my time in the Navy. They were only allowed to fly non-combatant aircraft.

As a woman, I was not allowed on combat missions. Ironically, I could go on a dependents’ cruise as a Navy dependent, but I could not go on the cruise if I identified myself as a member of the military.

There were some exceptions to the jobs women held. One of those exceptions was Admiral Grace Hopper, who was a premier computer scientist in the Navy.

The treatment of female servicemembers was slowly changing when I left the military. Female students were allowed in military academies, and many more employment areas were open to women.

Major Flanigan-Noyes saw even more changes than I did. She saw female Wing Commanders and Generals in areas where the positions were previously held by men.

Today, we see women in special forces units, on submarines, and on combatant ships. They are also flying combatant aircraft or serving as astronauts and doctors. The list goes on.

The Transition into Civilian Life Has Also Changed for All Servicemembers

Another area that has changed for all military servicemembers, whether they are male or female, is the transition into civilian life. Moving into civilian life can be difficult for servicemembers whose only job has always been the military.

In my day, transition involved finding your own job in the civilian world and trying to time your hire date to your military release date. On your last day, you went to personnel and turned in your military ID card. After that, you were out the door.

When Major Flanigan-Noyes transitioned out of the military, there were opportunities to do civilian fellowships and internships during her last few months of active duty. She had courses in writing a civilian resume, training on using the federal government’s job site USAJobs and seminars from the Department of Labor, among other training.

Finding Military Mentors

Both Major Flanigan-Noyes and I both wanted mentors throughout our journey through the military. It was interesting that both of us had a similar experience.

When we requested a mentor from a senior person in our commands, the automatic assumption was that we both wanted a female senior mentor. Neither of us had that requirement; we wanted someone who would help us with our military careers.

The Military World Often Reflects the Civilian World

The military is a microcosm of the world around us. There are individuals from all walks of life and what is happening in the civilian world is happening to a smaller extent in the military.

The military is also known for doing social experiments. Sometimes, these experiments are lagging in the civilian world, but many times they are forward-thinking.

The military is not a guarantee of goodness. Just like the civilian world, there are good people and bad people in the military. There are good leaders, bad leaders, and average leaders.

There are excellent experiences for many female servicemembers but there are also women who unfortunately have been bullied or otherwise mistreated. But these good and bad experiences apply to men in the military as well.

Entering Military Service: A Viable Option Today for Female Servicemembers

Would I change what I did? I would NEVER change the experience I had in the Navy. Major Flanigan-Noyes would not change her experience, either.

Is the military still a viable, good opportunity for a woman today? While I would not speak for every young woman considering the military, I would seriously encourage her to consider it for the short or long term.

Another consideration to keep in mind is to take someone who has experience in the military with you when you speak to a recruiter. Remember that the recruiter is a salesperson. The recruiter is trying to fulfill a quota, just like any other salesperson.

I would not recognize the U.S. Navy today. Many customs and jargon terms have changed. Also, what is allowed and not allowed has altered dramatically. The civilian world has changed dramatically as well. The civilian world that I knew as a teenager no longer exists today. For our society, understanding our past and our future will be reflected in the military.

Dr. Wanda Curlee is a Department Chair at the University. She has over 30 years of consulting and project management experience and has worked at several Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Curlee has a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix, a MBA in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix, and a M.A. and a B.A. in Spanish Studies from the University of Kentucky. Dr. Curlee has published numerous articles and several books on project management. She has served as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Navy and spent 15 years on active duty and the reserves.

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