By lex, on July 23rd, 2007
Relationships between the sexes have always been issues of some interest in the Navy. The first class to integrate females into the Brigade of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy was only two years senior to my own, and there was a fair amount of discussion throughout the school whether it even made sense to accept women, since they were not at that time eligible to serve in combatant warships or aircraft. Members of the Brigade opposed to the notion apparently believed that the school had been designed to forge wartime leaders in a monastic crucible, and didn’t see as how the fairer sex quite fit in.
Not all of that discussion was particularly enlightened – after all (and no offense to the occasional O-1 commenter) the only thing more chilling than hearing an ensign offer his professional opinion on a matter is hearing it from a guy who hasn’t made ensign yet. For his own part, your correspondent was himself philosophical on the subject of gender integration at federal institutes of higher learning: Properly constituted authority had made a decision within the defined boundaries of their purview – all else was commentary.
The first thing you learn to do is salute.
Plus, it will not have escaped the attention of a casual reader that your humble scribe kinda likes girls. Sure, there might have been an added element of sexual tension added to the pressure cooker that was Bancroft Hall* that had been absent theretofore, but from my own perspective it was a small price to pay for the privilege of, you know: Having girls around.
Not quite ten years after I graduated I was in the audience at a professional symposium in Las Vegas when an acquaintance challenged (I believe) the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare on a subject which had been rumbling throughout the fleet: A congressional proposal to take gender integration yet another step further by opening up combat billets to females in squadrons and ships of the line. The general sense of the room, full as it was of recently returned veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, was that such an innovation was a bad idea.
It might well be that some of those who had been in the room soberly contending that gender integration was deleterious to notions of good order, discipline and combat effectiveness ended the weekend by drunkenly pawing, groping and otherwise assaulting women at random and one female officer in particular on the third floor of the Hilton Hotel. The ensuing scandal and the witch hunt which followed plagued naval aviation for a generation, drove a wedge of mistrust between the junior officer corps and their flag leadership and permanently damaged the careers of many promising officers. Doing all of these things while simultaneously advancing the cause of gender integrated combat units by leaps and bounds was a non-trivial accomplishment, and probably not the result intended by the kind of goons who grope passersby.
It also resulted in me flying an approach to land in the worst weather I’d ever seen in order to be someplace I really didn’t want to be, but that’s another story**.
So it was that two years later, as I was re-training in the FA-18 – having spent three years flying F-16s, F-5s and A-4s in an adversary squadron – en route to a department head job overseas, I was joined in my refresher class by two female Hornet pilots heading to the fleet as the first beneficiaries of Tailhook-inspired changes to the combat exclusion law.
Being rather more on the feminine end of the femininity spectrum rather than the Amazon end, neither of them was very large compared to the average knuckle dragging, beetle-browed strike fighter pilot, and in fact the smaller of the two was no bigger than a minute. The latter was also an outspoken left/liberal in her political views – a characteristic which was not so very usual in fighter aviation, although not unheard of by any means – as well as being pretty damned smart.
Came to pass one night on a detachment to Naval Air Facility El Centro that the students and instructor pilots sought dinner at a local restaurant, and enjoyed a fine steak with the trimmings followed by rather too many bottles of a passable red wine. Whether or not there was any “veritas” in that vino I suppose will depend upon your point of view, but what is not debatable is that tongues were loosened past normal boundaries of both good taste and discretion – always the better part of valor – to the degree that the discussion became at one point “frank and open” as they say in diplomatic circles when people are shouting past each other.
The ladies held up their end quite creditably on the topics of women in combat in particular and politics in general. While I watched with a certain bemused detachment, their efforts only seemed to agitate one of the instructors, a gent we’ll call “Tutor” since that was his theoretical role. Even as we left the restaurant for the drive back to base he transitioned from being something of a bother to becoming a frightful bore in his attempts to win a point, any point at all, thinking perhaps that his arguments might improve with repetition. That unlikely possibility was further diminished by the sad mismatch of rhetorical and intellectual skills he had brought to the campaign, even before those skills – such as they were – had been soddened by the application of too much California red.
We reached the parking lot at last and went our several ways, your correspondent to the bachelor officer quarters lobby to check the flight schedule for the following day. Upon leaving the BOQ I was surprised to see Tutor lying on the ground, rolling around in pain.
“What happened to you?” I asked, looking around and seeing one of the ladies storming away.
“She hit me,” he groaned, pointing after the pilot, “knocked me to the ground.”
“Why on earth would she have done that?” I cried, helping him up and dusting him off while thinking to myself that there was no good that could come from a transition pilot and an officer striking a fellow officer who was also an instructor pilot.
“Well,” he said, snuffling a bit – “I might have called her the ‘c-word.’ I’m going after her!”
Had it coming to you my son, said I to myself, for if those aren’t fighting words then Bob’s your uncle, adding aloud, “No you’re not. I’m putting you to bed.”
Soon the deed was done and yer man was snoring away, but I was still concerned. It’s never good to have that kind of thing festering in a squadron, with different circles supporting differing agendas and even – perhaps – different versions of the truth. The instructor wasn’t a bad guy at heart, although he had behaved boorishly under the influence. But there would be a natural suspicion if things between them went south professionally, a rebuttable presumption that he might be acting on a grudge. That eventuality, however unlikely, could cause an already rather charged situation to boil over in unpredictable ways. The only thing to do was make a public sport of it and let out all the potentially toxic air – no need to fear a private grudge, and no need to call a harassment hotline once it was all exposed to light, I thought.
So it was that your correspondent was the first man to the ready room the next day, sharing the tale as one of great hilarity and recommending a call sign change for all the major players in the drama. The Junior Officer Protection Association – that dread court of public opinion whose decisions were beyond appeal – were enthusiastic participants once the blood was scented in the water, to the end that after a brief but spirited competition Tutor became temporarily known as “AKBAC,” an acronym for “a** kicked by a chick,” while herself became known as “KiTA” for “kicked Tutor’s a**”. Tutor wasn’t particularly happy at first, but realized after a bit of ribbing that you never let ‘em see you sweat and that there was nothing to do but laugh while KiTA seemed if anything embarrassed about all the attention.
The whole of it, the argument and standing up for herself against a larger man, the fact that the other instructors sensibly realized what had to be done and the grace and humor with which every side let it go in time was good to see.
That’s when I knew that it might just work.
*Dormitory at the USNA –Ed
** Working your hardest October 18, 2004 –Ed