RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
All this week we've been looking at how women's experience in the military has changed, especially when it comes to how and where they fight. Some female officers say the Pentagon's policy that officially excludes women from direct ground combat is actually grounding their careers.
This morning, NPR's Rachel Martin concludes her series with the story of one U.S. army brigadier general who says the Pentagon's promotion system is broken.
RACHEL MARTIN: Heidi Brown has three qualities that aren't exactly typical of an Army general. She's self-deprecating.
General HEIDI BROWN (U.S. Army): It still feels surreal, especially when people are, you know, calling you general and you just hope no one says, wait a minute, we made a big mistake.
MARTIN: She's empathetic.
Gen. BROWN: Originally I wanted to be a veterinarian until a little puppy died in my arms and I thought I can't do this.
MARTIN: And she's kind of shy.
Gen. BROWN: I'm an introvert by nature, and people would say, oh, you're not -especially people in the military - and they'd say you don't come across as being an introvert at all. And I said, well, that's because every day I put on my Wonder Woman outfit and you have to be able to do everything and anything. And so that's the person you portray when you're in uniform.
MARTIN: Heidi Brown's uniform is decorated with one small star, marking her as a brigadier general. But at this point in her career, she is not sure how much higher she can climb.
Gen. BROWN: We haven't had a woman division commander, corps commander, chief of staff of the Army, vice chief of staff of the Army, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Why not? I mean, I do see that the opportunities are limited.
MARTIN: Only one woman has been promoted to four-star general. That was Ann Dunwoody in 2008. But Brown points out that General Dunwoody rose through the ranks in logistics, not in a combat function. And not all four stars are created equal in the military. The ones from combat arms tend to get the most elite jobs. Heidi Brown actually works in one of the only combat units in the Army that does allow women - Air Defense Artillery.
Gen. BROWN: In 2003, with the initial invasion into Iraq, I commanded a brigade. And I was the only woman that commanded and have been the only woman who commanded a combat arms brigade in combat. I mean, still.
MARTIN: So Brown is in a strange spot. She's climbed the career ladder to a point where there aren't any women coming up right behind her, but she doesn't see a lot of women above her either.
Does yours feel like a lonely club?
Gen. BROWN: Oh yeah. In fact, when I was selected to command my brigade, I got great advice from my mentor. And he said, you know, it's going to feel really lonely. It's lonely anyway, but it's going to be really lonely because it's just you and then the other, you know, male brigade commanders. You know, I'm female, I'm single. They're all male. They're all married. They all have kids. I have a dog.
MARTIN: Brown points out that a lot of women abandon the military career track. They make other choices in their lives, maybe want to devote more time to family, and they stop being competitive. But she says the women who are ambitious and want the top leadership positions are handicapped by the Pentagon's policy that bars women from being assigned to units whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat.
Earlier in Brown's career, a battalion commander wanted her to be his operations officer. But when he went to file the paperwork, he was told...
Gen. BROWN: That the position is coded out to women.
MARTIN: Coded out, as in no woman could have that job because she'd be working for a unit involved in direct combat. Brown bangs her fist against the table. The experience still annoys her.
Gen. BROWN: I could be an intel officer. I could be the supply officer. I could be the executive officer. I could not be the operations officer. It was coded out.
MARTIN: There were other instances in her career where gender came into play -and not in a good way. It was 1983. She was a young lieutenant in Germany on her first deployment, and she had a commander who liked to drink, a lot.
Gen. BROWN: I just remember one night he got drunk, was pounding on my door, you know, saying, you know, you blankety-blank. You know you want it. Open the door.
MARTIN: She called another officer, who came over and sent him away. Later, the man came back and banged on her door again. Again, she called her friend and this time he knocked the man around a little bit. Still, Heidi Brown was furious.
Gen. BROWN: And so the next morning I just, I went into his office and I, you know, no sir, no nothing, I just said: You ever do that again, I will destroy you.
MARTIN: That was almost 30 years ago. Since then Brown has worked her way up the chain of command - major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, and finally in 2008 she was pinned with a star and made a brigadier general. But, she says...
Gen. BROWN: The gender now shuts the door for me.
MARTIN: Brown says it's almost impossible to get on the promotion fast track in the Army without leading troops in ground combat, which, remember, women aren't allowed to do. Now, she doesn't think the solution is to open up all the combat arms to women.
Gen. BROWN: I'm not necessarily an advocate for opening up infantry and armor, which are really, really the two branches that exclude women because of the direct combat role that they have.
MARTIN: She does think that other combat specialties, like field artillery, should be opened up to women, and she thinks serving in elite combat arms groups should no longer be a prerequisite for the top military jobs. She herself would love to be the commandant of West Point, her alma mater, but that job has typically been held by an infantryman. Brown says what matters isn't job or gender but a demonstrated ability to lead.
For her, that test came in 2003 in Iraq. One of the units under her command was ambushed. There was a firefight and nine of her soldiers were killed.
Gen. BROWN: When I found out that the remains of my soldiers had been found, the last of them, I went up to my British exchange officer and I asked him for a cigarette. And he said, but you don't smoke. And I said, today I do.
MARTIN: There was nothing Heidi Brown could have done to prevent the ambush, but she did have to set an example for her troops. A couple days after the incident, she met up with the unit's battalion commander.
Gen. BROWN: He was on a hilltop and I could just see his silhouette. I had my driver drive me over to him and we just bear-hugged one another and he wept. And I let him, and I just bit my lip, because I knew that I needed to be strong. Did I want to? You bet I wanted to cry.
MARTIN: But as a woman she felt that she couldn't. That was eight years ago. Brown is working in the Pentagon now - far from the stress of combat - but she still has ambitions. I ask her what she'd do if she were offered one of those top jobs she says women should get a shot at - division commander in Afghanistan? She pauses before answering.
Gen. BROWN: Could I do it? I think I could. Would it be difficult? You bet. Probably the hardest thing I would ever do in my life. And I would want to make sure that I was physically, emotionally prepared - because failure is not an option.
MARTIN: Because, Brown says, when you're the first and you fail, chances are you're the last.
Rachel Martin, NPR News.
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