Your parents need the crap kicked out of them for raising such a disrespectful little terd.
A disgruntled Army veteran sent me the tweet on August 10, 2015, while I debated a retired three-star general on Fox News. It was the most colorful response I had ever received from a brother-in-arms. The general and I had been discussing how much to open combat roles to women. My take? All the way.
My fellow veterans had a habit of throwing the worst insults at me in order to defend the military’s sacred status quo. In part, the troll was right. General William “Jerry” Boykin was a warfighter several times over (I most certainly was not). I had offended all sense of military decorum by talking back to an officer several rungs up the chain of command, without any hint of shame.
In the heat of the segment, Boykin said, with more than a little flourish, “You cannot violate the laws of nature without expecting some consequences . . . The people that advocate for [women in combat] have never lived out of a rucksack in a combat situation.”
I hit him hard. How else were you supposed to hit a general? “I think the general is just wrong. Thirteen years of warfare have proven that women can live out of rucksacks in completely hor
rendous conditions in combat alongside men . . . They have fought and died in combat, in fact. And we should remember that.”
Of course, my words out of someone else’s mouth might have been less shocking. I was a woman. With brown skin and a name that certainly did not hail from the Bible. Boykin himself was not your average general, having made a hard-core turn to evangelical Christianity after retiring his uniform. He was now the executive vice president of the Family Research Council, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as a hate group. All of this was supposed to bolster his assertion that women had no place in the infantry.
Boykin’s military background and his Christian creds made him a beloved Fox guest, the kind who inspired nods and Amens all across America. His voice had the deep, weathered bellow of someone who had made a lot of people run for their lives. (Truth be told, the junior officer within me wanted to Sir him up and down, even while I ripped apart his arguments.)
Where did that leave me? On Fox News, I was a Brown female target with a name no one could pronounce and loyalties no one trusted. A former Marine, I was possibly the only activist around who would speak to the conservative masses about what the military needed to do for women in uniform. For Americans who saluted the flag no matter what the state of the union, it meant that my words often amounted to heresy.
Being an ex-Marine gave me some cover when talking about things like sexual violence in the military, or, in this case, integrating women into combat arms jobs. It meant that my trolls had refrained thus far from sending me rape and death threats, the kind usually sent to my civilian women counterparts when they spoke their minds. Still, what I did receive was unnerving, and sometimes terrifying. Women were not supposed to say what I’d been saying for years now. It was unruly. It was unbecoming.
A former Army Ranger, Boykin had recited a series of not-so-relevant talking points from the nineties about women in combat, in
cluding the propensity of uniformed men to lose their marbles at the sight of a nubile woman. All his claims had been debunked this week by the first two women who had graduated from Ranger School, the Army’s grueling combat leadership course.
Taking on an evangelical Christian general and ex-Ranger who’d served as an Army infantryman more years than I’d breathed oxygen took gumption. A year earlier, the organization I led had joined forces with four uniformed women and sued the Pentagon so all jobs in the military would be open to women. And it worked. The floodgates opened, as service women who wanted to see what they were made of entered all-male schools and assignments, and the defenders of the fiercest old boys’ club in America dug in like their lives depended on it.
The military’s culture wars had been brewing for decades. Hundreds of thousands of women had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And back at home, we were ensuring the military did right by them. It meant confronting some of the nation’s most precious myths about men in uniform. It meant exposing truths about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the daily humiliations women had to suffer through in order to wear the uniform. I’d seen it all firsthand. And there was still no end in sight.
I knew the military was better off when women succeeded, and no decorated Army general was going to convince me otherwise. The days when no one was listening were over. We had organized and spoken out years before #MeToo made headlines. And we had convinced an entire nation that service women were worth caring about.
These changes didn’t happen by chance, nor did they happen overnight.
As for me, it took joining the Marines to find my voice. Once I realized I could trust it, there was no turning back.