Military Women Combat Challenges in Service For women in the military, serving can present its own set of challenges, especially when they have to balance duty to their county and duties at home. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with two women veterans, Graciela Tiscareño-Sato and Miyoko Hikiji, about their devotion to helping other military women and veterans navigate those challenges.
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Military Women Combat Challenges in Service

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Military Women Combat Challenges in Service

Military Women Combat Challenges in Service

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I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, for many people, a big part of the American dream is buying your own home, but homeownership rates in the U.S. are at their lowest point in almost 20 years. We'll find out what's behind that and what it could mean going forward, just ahead.

But first, it's Veterans Day, and we want to spend some time talking about the women who've served in our military. According to the Pentagon, more than 1.8 million American women are veterans, and more than 200,000 women are currently on active duty. Being a woman in the service has its rewards, and it has its challenges. We're joined now by two women veterans who devote themselves to helping those who follow in their footsteps. Graciela Tiscareno-Sato is a former Air Force captain and author of a bilingual children's book called "Good Night Captain Mama." And also with us is Miyoko Hikiji. She's a former Army specialist and author of "All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq." Welcome to both of you.


MIYOKO HIKIJI: Happy to be part of this.

HEADLEE: So, Miyoko, you were in Iraq as a supply guard, and you were a truck driver. Graciela was up in the air. You were very much on the ground. And I understand that, in fact, the work that you do now was inspired by a tragic event that happened while you were in Iraq. Could you tell me what happened and how that, I guess, changed your perspective?

HIKIJI: Well, I think losing two unit members - someone who was close to me in my squad and another unit member that I was a friend with - really made me think about what it was that I was going to do to preserve their memory and to immortalize their stories so that they weren't just going to be a blip in the news for a day, but they were going to be a living legacy for their families. And so that was something that I wanted that was kind of the catalyst for writing my story.

HEADLEE: What do you think - are there differences in the challenges for either a mother or a father who is serving in the military?

HIKIJI: I really think it depends on the sort of partnership that you have in your marriage. I think in a lot of cases, the woman still plays the role of the primary caregiver, and so it's more difficult for her to maintain her military career and support her husband's career and be a mom. Those are some big roles. But I think in a partnership where you can really bounce back and forth and depending on where you're stationed at and what your job duties are, it really is possible to be a successful military family if you have a pretty good support network.

HEADLEE: And, Graciela, I mean, both of you work with helping to support military families. And as I understand it, part of the reason for that is you both feel that the resources aren't entirely sufficient yet. There's not quite enough support for military families. Your book is bilingual because you wanted to specifically help Latino military families, right?

TISCARENO-SATO: It was very important for me, first, for children who are born in the United States to Spanish-speaking parents, like I was, who are growing up bilingual, to be able to enjoy this unique story in the home, in the school, in the language of their choice, so that they can see women, you know, Latinas in their community in a different light. And so that's really one of the reasons I wanted it to be in Spanish is to say Latinas are veterans, too, mommies are veterans, too, and to do it in the first language that I learned to communicate with. And certainly, for me, it's about role modeling. It's about the little five-year-old girl last week in an elementary school who pulled on my sleeve at the end of the assembly and said in Spanish, I want to fly airplanes like you did.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us on this Veterans Day, we're discussing the challenges for women in the military with two veterans - Miyoko Hikiji, a former Army specialist, and former Air Force captain, Graciela Tiscareno-Sato. Miyoko, I'm well aware, as any journalist is, of some of the reporting that's been done - the Congressional hearings about sexual harassment in the military, the lack of prosecution, I guess, of violators and the lack of resources, for the most part, mostly women who are either harassed or even assaulted in the military. How do you address that when you're talking to a girl who might want to go into the armed services? What do you say to her?

HIKIJI: You know, you really have to follow your heart. If it's something that you believe in, you really have a desire to serve, I would never tell someone that that wasn't their right. But I do caution people that there isn't a laundry list of things that you can do to either prepare yourself or to prevent assault because really sexual assault in the military is about the perpetrator committing a crime. And I think it leads to further, you know, victim blaming and victimization for us to say, well, if you do this, if you walk in a battle buddy system, if you don't go out at night, if you don't drink beer etc., those things don't prevent rape. I think what we need to do is really look at prosecuting rape cases, getting rape perpetrators out of the military. That is really the only way to solve the problem. There is really not a preventive measure that's going to take care of it at the level that we have right now in the service.

HEADLEE: And, Graciela, there's other challenges for women in the military. There's a lot of complaints that they're not promoted or that they're passed over for promotion. This also became an issue during these sexual harassment hearings on Congress when we saw that image of all the military brass sitting at the table to talk about sexual assault, and they were all males. Are we starting to make any kind of progress in terms of getting women into higher ranks?

TISCARENO-SATO: You know, power doesn't yield power without a fight, right? And so those who are in power are going to want to stay there. But, you know, let me offer you an example of a positive that I saw when I was flying. When I was one of a handful of women flying up in Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, we had five flight squadrons. Three of them were actually commanded by women pilots by the time I left the service. So in terms of promotion, it's happening more and more in the operational world, and by that I mean in the Air Force, where the airplanes are. So it really depends on where you look in the military. I don't think this is a comment that can really be generalized. What are we talking about? Operational flying squadrons are very different than Miyoko's experience, which is very different than someone in the Navy.

HEADLEE: Well, then let me ask you the same question, Miyoko, because you're a former Army specialist, and you were a truck driver, and you couldn't be more on the ground. What did you see in terms of promotions for women, especially getting into the high levels, the high brass?

HIKIJI: I think there's still a brass ceiling there, and I think lifting the combat exclusion policy in the spring is going to change a little bit of that because part of what allows a woman to rise in the ranks, especially in roles like in combat units, is being able to serve in a combat unit in that role rightfully hers. And once you have that experience, that really raises your visibility as far as making those higher command positions.

TISCARENO-SATO: Can I add to that?

HEADLEE: Of course.

TISCARENO-SATO: You just made exactly the point that I was saying because the ground combat exclusion is what you're talking about, Miyoko. And in the Air Force and in the other services, they lifted the combat exclusion for women in terms of aircraft operations back in 1993. So that happened a year and a half after I finished flight school. And so because they lifted the combat exclusion for aircraft, we had those women that became those commanders that I just mentioned. They were allowed to rise in the ranks and become commanders because that combat exclusion had been lifted.

HEADLEE: So, Miyoko, we're talking about this brass ceiling, which to a certain extent means that there's people up above that are not always treating both genders equally. But what about the people who are either your equal or of lower rank? Is it the case that women have trouble leading people in the armed services or getting people to follow orders with respect?

HIKIJI: You know, there's really a variety of cases. Usually when I speak, there are women who come up to me and talk to me about a sexual assault case, almost about 100 percent of the time.


HIKIJI: So I do know that it's pervasive. I do know that it exists in most of the branches and in most of the job positions, but there are good stories out there. And some of those just aren't things that we hear, and they're just not things that we focus on. But it's definitely a command culture. So it really depends on the commander of the unit and what it is that they instill in their platoon leaders and their platoon sergeants, all the way down to the squad level. And when you have a great commander who understands diversity, understands leadership, understands gender roles and can integrate the training and how that functions in a combat zone, I see a lot of great things happen.

And I think that's why the commanders of all the branches came together in the spring and said, we need to lift the combat exclusion because they all had experiences with women who were literally serving in combat, but supposedly excluded from that role on paper. And they saw how well they were performing. So I think there's a lot of good things happening on the ground, but of course, with what it is that we know and what it is that I've seen, there's still a long way to go.

HEADLEE: So, Graciela, if your kids - one of your kids grows up - your daughter - and says, I want to go into the armed services, what advice - I assume that you'll fully support that, but what advice will you give her on how to survive and to thrive?

TISCARENO-SATO: It'll be very much what I say now as I speak to kids of all ages, you know, middle school and high school, as well. And that is to share the amazing knowledge I was given from my high school counselor's husband, to pursue a scholarship and have the military pay for education before you serve. That's what I did. I had an Air Force ROTC scholarship and I never would have known about it if I hadn't had this counselor with a husband who had received that scholarship and who invited me to her house to learn about it.

So what I would tell my daughter would be to get your education first, whether you get the scholarship or not, and while you're doing that, you can get exposed to many different careers that you might want to pursue in the military. And then, of course, I would encourage her to go Air Force. That's my bias. And then I would fully support her. And then in terms of how to conduct herself, you know, as an excellent person and as a person that earns the respect of those she is commanding and those who she is following. And it would be the advice I would give to anybody that is positioned to become a great leader.

HEADLEE: And, Miyoko, same for you? You'd support your kids going into the services?

HIKIJI: I certainly would, and I think one thing that I would want for my daughters, whether they served in uniform or not, is to really have a strong sense of self. Young people go in, and they make young people mistakes. I ended up in a combat unit as a noncombat soldier, so there were 125 men for every three or four women. And I think when you're about in your, you know, late teens and early 20s, there are a lot of mistakes that can be made if you're not prepared. So having a strong sense of self, writing down your dating rules, your sexual morals and what it is that you are going to approach relationships - share it with a battle sister, and then stick to your guns.

I think you need to be proactive about having a plan before you get into those situations because you're going to end up in an emotionally intense and physically rigorous environment with a lot of single, tall, dark and tattooed. And I think it's very easy to fall into the wrong vein if you're not prepared ahead of time.

HEADLEE: Miyoko Hikiji. Great advice from a former Army specialist and author of the book "All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq." She joined us from Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. And also great advice from Graciela Tsicareno-Sato, former Air Force captain, author of the book "Good Night Captain Mama." She joined us from Berkeley, California. Happy Veterans Day, and thank you so much to both of you.

TISCARENO-SATO: Thank you for the honor today, Celeste.

HIKIJI: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And we're continuing this conversation on Twitter in a live chat. Just search @TellMeMoreNPR or #VeteransDay.

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