BE ALL YOU CAN BE…

The Impact of Active and

Veteran African American Women Soldiers in the U.S. Military

Growing up in the 1980s as a young black girl to a matriarchal cancer surviving single mom in homogeneous blue collar Detroit, I heard and saw the popular Army recruiting slogan “Be All You Can Be” everywhere — On billboards above the Chaldean American owned gas station on the corner and during commercial breaks from Cliff Huxtable raising well-adjusted middle class black children with his flawless lawyer wife Clair on the “Cosby Show.”

     Yet, despite the Army disseminating this motto to all corners of globe from 1980 to 2001 (Evans, 2015), there was one sovereign state where the message just did not get through — My momma’s house. Do not misunderstand. My mother drilled into my sister and I that we could be all that we could be. She just never mentioned the Army or any other branch of the military as a means of achieving it. Education, she stressed, was key. And so, like the good daughter I was raised to be, I graduated with honors from Martin Luther King High School, earned my B.A. degree in journalism from Wayne State University and completed my MFA degree in Film from Columbia College graduate school.

     As luck, would have it, I then fell for and married a charming Marine veteran who reminded me of my estranged Vietnam vet dad. And although I was and am benefiting as a dependent from my husband’s V.A. disability subsistence, it still never occurred to me that I could have served in the military until I was tasked with the assignment to interview a veteran for my Cultural Anthropology class.

     During the course of this paper, I will examine the dual individualistic and collective culture of the patriarchal military and challenge my ethnocentric bias of this armed force system as a black woman. To that end, I have specifically employed the applied anthropology methods of interviews and questionnaires with two young African American women – One, an Army officer presently serving in Italy and the other, an honorably discharged Army veteran who is also my classmate. My goal is to use their informed, experienced and emic viewpoints as members of African American and women subcultures to reflect the impact active and veteran black women soldiers are and have been having on the U.S. military. I will also substantiate my limited quantitative (hard data) etic research and individual qualitative (how and why) findings with course textbook research, multiple literature, media and journal sources and a historical review of black women in the military. 

Buffalo Sister Soldiers

     In his great American 1952 novel, “Invisible Man,” Negro American author Ralph Ellison wrote: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me (MacGowan, C. (2011).” For me, personally, and for most others, I suspect, a similar sentiment could be used to describe active and veteran African American service women in the military. To understand why that is, I researched the untold, unheralded history of women in the military. In 1782, Deborah Sampson, a white woman disguised as her deceased brother Robert was one of the first women to fight in the American Revolutionary War (Wood, 2016). Although it was not publicly confirmed at the time, Sampson was not alone. In fact, several women disguised as men enlisted and fought in the revolutionary, Civil and Mexican wars – black women included. The most widely known of these was union spy, Harriet Tubman. A self-emancipated slave, freedom fighter and unpaid volunteer nurse during the Civil War, soldiers nicknamed her “General” Tubman. She also founded Boston’s branch of the Women’s Relief Corps and her 1902 memoirs became the only written record of colored volunteer nurses in the Civil War (Hicks, III & Hicks, Ph.D., 2010).

     Following the lead of “General” Tubman, colored women continued to serve as unpaid volunteer nurses in the Spanish American War (1898), World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) (Hicks, III & Hicks, Ph.D., 2010). Routinely serving in subpar segregated military units, these Buffalo Sister Soldiers exemplary performed their volunteer duties with minimal support or fanfare until 1948 when Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, granting all women permanent status in the U.S. military and entitling them to veterans’ benefits (Hicks, III & Hicks, Ph.D., 2010). Although these colored women nurses were now “official” members of the armed services, the sexist, racist and patriarchal culture of the military was not welcoming.

     Ethnocentrically biased for white males, the United States military at that time (and now) was an ascribed hierarchy that used the social construct of race and false scientific “truths” to justify their discrimination against and mistreatment of these women. Their response, though wrong, could be explained by examining the anthropological definition of culture. Defined as “the patterns of shared and learned beliefs/behavior of an ethnic, social or age group,” culture can be assembled into two categories: diversity and change. Diversity finds its way into a culture as a result of people from various backgrounds becoming members of a culture. And change within a culture usually occurs as the result of fulfilling a pressing need (Wikibooks, 2013, December 27). Perceived as happening quickly, this influx of women and specifically colored women into the U.S. military sent (military) society – which cultural anthropologist and combat ethnographer Sebastian Junger argued is basically at war with itself (Junger, 2016) – into an “us vs. them” defense mode. 

     Despite the often hostile and stratified culture of the U.S. military, however, Negro women continued to enlist in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and Marines. They also proudly served in the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1959-1975) in mostly administrative and nursing positions (Hicks, III & Hicks, Ph.D., 2010). In 1973, however, opportunities for black service women slowly began to change after the U.S. ended its male only military draft, formed an all-volunteer military system and transitioned into a new 20th century form of warfare.

     Nearly two decades later as the U.S. engaged in the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), over 40,000 women served on the front lines — marking the first-time American men and women were deployed together in wartime conditions (Wood, 2016). Also unprecedented was the fact that an estimated 40% of the female enlisted soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers were African American (Hicks, III & Hicks, Ph.D., 2010). This upswing of women answering the call of duty continued to surge following the Army dropping its ruling barring women from filling positions that posed “substantial risk.” And as America continues Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2003 – present), women – black and white – now comprise 15% of all military service persons and 10% of them have served (or are serving) in Iraq and Afghanistan (Hicks, III & Hicks, Ph.D., 2010).

     Here is why this is impressive: According to the 2010 Census and other recent government reports, African Americans constitute just 12.3% of the overall U.S. population (Population of the United States by Race and Hispanic/Latino Origin, Census 2000 and 2010, 2016) and make up only13.2 % of the military (Statista, 2016). Yet, African American women – who are enlisting at higher rates than any other ethnicity – now represent approximately a third of all women enlisted in the armed services (Melin, 2016). Facts like these raise two questions in my mind. If African American women are joining and serving in the military at record rates, why are they – ala Ellison – invisible to the American public, i.e. me? And why are they enlisting more than other ethnicities in the first place?

Wait…You joined the Army?

     I first met Natalia when she was a bright 12-year-old student activist with the Tavis Smiley Foundation. For four years, TSF contracted my husband and I to produce a series of ethnographic videos for promotional and fundraising efforts. As flies on the wall, we used observational methods, interviews/questionnaires and limited participant observation as chaperones – all Applied Anthropology methods I didn’t know at the time – to capture Natalia and her fellow Youth Advisory Council members as they planned and ran the foundation’s annual leadership institutes.

     I must admit, Natalia did not particularly stand out for me during the four years my husband and I documented the council. I remember her being respectful and an exceptional student, but all of the Youth Advisory Council members were. In fact, we considered them all to be the next generation of the “talented tenth.” Coined in 1903 by Negro sociologist and civil right activist W.E. B. DuBois, the talented tenth was a term he used to describe the leadership class of the Negro race (DuBois, 1903). From my biased point of view, Natalia or any of her other highly educated peers were on a predestined path for scholastic, political or leadership greatness. They would never need to join the military to serve and fight in the white man’s war, right? Wrong.

     “Everyone was shocked when I joined,” Houston native, Lt. Natalia Simone Bailey, told me. A honors graduate from the ultra conservative Claremont McKeena College with a B.A. in International Relations, she speaks four languages (Spanish, Arabic, English and Italian) and spent two years studying abroad and teaching English in Egypt. Natalia enlisted in the Army in 2012 when she was 24 years old (N.S. Bailey, personal communication, November 13, 2016)

      “There is no real concise answer that truly gets at the heart of the reason why I joined. I could say I had a service commitment requirement per my scholarship, but that wouldn’t fully explain it. I could say it was because I wanted something different outside of consulting and office-work in the beltway, that I needed structure and order to my life or that I wanted to continue the legacy of my family — All of the patriarchs in my family have served. Yet none of these individually makes up why I joined,” she continued. “I joined because I wanted to make a difference, because it was going to be a challenge and because I love my country. All of that together with where I was in my life at the time made the Army the optimal place.”

     Based on my investigating, Natalia’s reasons for joining the military actually mirror Pew Research findings. In a 2011 survey, male military veterans cited serving their country and educational benefits as reasons for joining. Women, however, overwhelmingly stated that they joined because they – like Natalia who found herself highly educated and unemployed during the Great Recession – could not find work (Melin, 2016). Combine these economic realities with the social challenges that African American women uniquely face as a subculture in American society and it corroborates the findings of a recent Department of Defense study that confirmed what military leaders have known for decades: African American women have been an essential source of recruits specifically for Army (Dao, 2011) since the days of “General” Tubman.

     A world of mature adults. Her full name is Ronisha Louis Mitchell — Everyone calls her Mickey. She is my Cultural Anthropology classmate, but unlike Natalia, who I have known for 16 years, I only met Mickey this August.

     Despite the short time of getting to know her, I have been able to utilize the applied anthropology methods of non-intrusive observation, interviewing and participant observation as her classmate. And as a result of our multiple, prolonged engagements, I have learned that Mickey is incredible open about her experience serving as a supply/logistics soldier in U.S. Army and she is even more forthcoming about her journey as a 24-year-old veteran who served during combat in Iraq (2011-2012) and Afghanistan (2013-2014).

     “I lost my grandmother in 2010 when I was in the 11th grade,” said Mickey, the youngest of two half brothers and three half sisters from North Philly as she nibbled on salmon sushi and I sipped on miso soup at a Japanese restaurant across the street from Pasadena City College’s (PCC) campus. “After that, I didn’t have many options (R.L. Mitchell, personal communication, October 27, 2016).”

     Thanks to an opportune meeting with an Army recruiter at her school pitching the promise of a free college education, though, Mickey soon found herself enlisting right after graduating from high school at the age of 18 – a new reality she hadn’t planned, but was so ready for.

     “I was sick of the complacency in Philly,” she said. “I joined the Army to go to college and see a different world outside of Philadelphia.”

     Fulfilling the recruiter’s promise that the Army would show her a different world, Mickey’s first assignments were stateside in South Carolina, Kansas and Wisconsin. And although she would not travel overseas to Germany or be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan until later, she was already being challenged by the culture shock from adjusting as a gay African American woman in the white male dominated Armed Services.

     “There’s a lot of discrimination against black women in the military, but I had a thick skin coming from Philly,” said Mickey, who bucked against the collective “boy’s club” culture and witnessed blatant abuses of power while she was serving. “It was difficult for me, because I thought I was entering a world of mature adults. We’re trained as soldiers to respect the rank and I always told myself that when I make sergeant I won’t behave that way.”

     Following the death of a friend in combat, Mickey decided to take an individualistic stance by “taking a knee” from the military, because she could not see herself doing it full time anymore. She also wrote via email: “I wanted to do other things with my life and gain more experiences. I had to think about what my real dreams were.”

     Black women’s culture of support. Mickey’s search for what comes next led her to PCC, which – according to its official pamphlet – has historically served veterans since World War II (Pasadena.edu, 2016). Veteran Resource Center (VRC) Specialist Carol Calandra also confirmed that PCC was one of the first colleges to open a VRC campus center and the second to create the transition course, “Boots to Books” for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Additionally, Ms. Calandra shared with me via telephone, PCC is one of the few colleges to provide specific services for women veterans. Currently, PCC has over 700 veterans on campus and “25% of them are female,” she said.

     Mickey, who enlisted in the Army reserves and has been serving as a sergeant since 2015, is a proud recipient of PCC’s VRC services. Interestingly enough, her ability to find social support is a common resilient trait that U.S. Veteran Affairs has been studying among African American women (Stodghill, 2012). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 per every100,000 white men in the general population committed suicide from 2005 to 2009. By contrast, less than three out of 100,000 African American women took their own lives in the general population (Stodghill, 2012). Concerned about rising suicide rates of U.S. military veterans, the VA is now seeking ways to borrow and modify black women’s and by extension, African American female veteran’s culture of community into its patriarchal and white male dominated armed services (Stodghill, 2012).

Conclusion

     Pages ago, I began this paper sharing my personal thoughts about the Army’s most popular slogan, “Be All You Can Be” and I vowed to challenge my ethnocentric biases regarding why any African American women – highly educated or otherwise – would voluntarily enlist in the U.S. military. I can confidently say that my biases have dissolved away through the process of researching black women’s proud legacy of service in the military and by interviewing two very different young African American women – Natalia, a lieutenant currently serving in the U.S. Army and Mickey, an Army veteran and current sergeant in the Army reserves.

     Also by examining the patriarchal hierarchy and culture of the U.S. military through the prism of the two subcultures of ethnicity (African American) and sex (female), I learned something I was not expecting. Culture, as we learned in class and through our readings, is a living breathing system of shared beliefs and behavior that is constantly changing as diverse people from different ethnic, social and age groups engage within society. This definition — especially after this year’s election — was clear to me as a civilian in our stratified American western society. But until this assignment, I did not attribute this same definition to the U.S. military. Nor did I consider the cultural impact that African American women have and are having on the U.S. armed forces.

     From Harriet Tubman to Natalia and Mickey, black women are slowly changing the homogenous, ethnocentric and patriarchal culture of the U.S. military. They are achieving this, however, not by assimilating or abandoning their culture, but by acculturating, ie. taking on the culture of the military while still retaining their own cultural identity. Perhaps this is out of necessity as black women. Although they are enlisting in record numbers and more than any other ethnicity into the armed services, they still remain invisible. Yet, it is under this cloak of being seen and unseen that thriving African American women veterans are defiantly surviving like the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks and reshaping the culture of the U.S. military and American society as a whole.