The Fight of My Life
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The Fight of My Life

Support for the armed forces is the highest it's been for decades. But in the Air Force, one fighter pilot is questioning military policy -- and opening up a contentious divide. What do you think of her decision to hang tough?

Taking a Stand

Last November 2, I was at my post on Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia when a helicopter carrying 11 American special operations servicemen malfunctioned and crashed in Afghanistan. As director of the Joint Search and Rescue Center, I shifted into high gear to do the job I'd been trained for: choreographing the rescue of our troops. It was a complicated operation, involving more than a half-dozen types of aircraft and hundreds of personnel. I tracked the location of our troops, consulted generals in the field, received briefings on the weather and terrain in enemy territory, directed pilots to the crash site, and diverted aircraft on bombing runs in Afghanistan to support the rescue effort. In the end, we rescued all 11 men.

After working 28 hours straight, I returned to my dorm room exhausted. But even if I'd had the energy, I would not have left the base to celebrate. In fact, in the 13 months I had been in Saudi Arabia, I had never gone off base for leisure because I could not bring myself to abide by the rules that our government had imposed on me and the other 1,000 American servicewomen in Saudi Arabia since the end of the Gulf War. We had to cover ourselves in an abaya, a black gown and head scarf worn by Saudi women, whenever we traveled off base. We also weren't allowed to drive or sit in the front seat of the car, and had to be escorted by a man -- and pretend to be his wife if questioned by locals or the Saudi religious police.

Why was I against these mandates? As a woman, I find them demeaning. As a Christian, I resent being ordered to wear the clothing of the Muslim faith. The Saudi government never requested that American women wear the abaya. And the dress code was discriminatory, as it explicitly forbid male servicemen from wearing traditional Muslim garb. It was inconsistent, too, because it didn't apply to women in the State Department working in Saudi Arabia or to the wives of U.S. servicemen. The same was true of the travel policy -- State Department women were allowed to sit in the front seat of a vehicle, and they didn't have to pretend to be married. The only restriction that applied to women across the board is the prohibition against driving. Also, since only one religion is tolerated in Saudi Arabia, all military personnel are restricted from wearing non-Islamic religious symbols when they leave the base.

For six years, I tried to bring about change from within the system. Though numerous officials heard my concerns, and progress sometimes was promised, rescinding the policies never became a priority to anyone but me. So in December, I took a drastic step, and sued Donald Rumsfeld, as head of the Defense Department, where the rules originated. I'm seeking an immediate policy change, not money.

At 36, I've been an officer on the fast track, having earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel four years ahead of my peers. Currently, I'm the most senior female combat pilot in the U.S. Air Force. I'm a warrior -- but in the beginning I had no idea this would become the fight of my life.

Young Rebel with a Cause

Enlarge Image

McSally was one of the first
females to fly a fighter jet.
Image courtesy of The
Rutherford Institute.

I was raised in Warwick, Rhode Island, the youngest of five children. My father, a lawyer, died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 12. In what ended up being our last conversation, he said, "Make me proud." I tried to do just that. In high school, I was valedictorian of my class and captain of the track team. My mother, who supported our family as a teacher after my father died, was a tremendous role model. From her example, I learned tenacity and grace under pressure.

When it came time for college, I applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, though I was naive about military life. I liked the concept of trading a free education for service to my country. At the time, I expected to be a physician specializing in aerospace medicine. But by the end of freshman year, after taking some rides in fighter jets -- what the Air Force calls "incentive flights" to introduce cadets to flying -- I changed career plans. I found it exhilarating to fly upside down, looking at the clouds and the sunset.

Flying a fighter jet is the premier assignment in the Air Force, so I decided that's what I wanted to do -- even though in the mid-1980s women were prohibited from flying combat aircraft in all branches of the military. And at 5-foot-3, I was an inch too short to fly cargo, tanker, and other support aircraft. For two years, I lobbied the head doctor at the academy for a waiver, because even though my legs weren't long enough, they were strong and my sitting height was within limits. I had a hunch that the military eventually would lift the ban on women fighter pilots, because it didn't make sense to exclude so many servicewomen from this line of work.

Fortunately, the doctor designed a series of tests so I could prove I was fit enough for flight training. During my senior year, I was the only cadet to receive an exemption.

In 1988, I graduated with a degree in biology, ranking 25 in a class of 1,050 cadets, and won an Air Force scholarship to Harvard, where I earned a master's degree in public policy. In 1993, when the military opened up combat aircraft to women, I was one of seven female officers selected to fly a fighter jet. I chose the A-10, a single-seat plane designed for close air-to-ground support. We call it the "Warthog" -- it's an ugly, down-and-dirty tank killer -- but I was attracted to its mission of assisting our troops on the front lines.

Politically Incorrect

In 1995, I was sent to Kuwait for my first deployment. From Al Jaber Air Base, I flew A-10 missions over Iraq, enforcing the no-fly zone that went into effect after the Gulf War when the U.S. military increased its presence in the Middle East. Shortly after arriving, I read about the abaya policy in a military newspaper for Americans stationed in the Middle East. There was a picture of a young enlisted woman in Saudi Arabia wearing the head-to-toe black outfit. Beneath it, the caption read: "This is the appropriate and proper way for a woman to wear the abaya and head scarf when she leaves the base."

Outraged, I contacted headquarters of the Joint Task Force Southwest Asia, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to find out how the policy got started and who had the authority to change it. An officer on the commander's staff said it was a "high-level State Department policy" that had been established after the Gulf War, in deference to "host-nation" sensitivity. When I queried my chain of command, I was informed that the policy would not be changed.

In 1999, I was one of 12 officers selected by the Air Force for a prestigious legislative fellowship in Washington, D.C. During my time on Capitol Hill working for Senator John Kyl (R-Ariz.), I mentioned the abaya rules and my objections to them to other Congressional staffers, again hoping that someone with influence would share my outrage and push for change. It wasn't until a colleague sent a formal inquiry to the State Department that I learned the truth: The dress code and travel policy came from the Defense Department; the officer at the Southwest Asia headquarters had been misinformed. I also discovered that the policy was one that the local commander in the region had the discretion to enforce or rescind.

Once my fellowship ended, I was tapped to direct search-and-rescue missions over Iraq. It was a plum job -- a real testament to my leadership and skills. The only drawback: I'd be stationed in Saudi Arabia.

I immediately phoned the local commander, a two-star general, who would be my boss.

"Sir, this policy needs to be changed," I said. "I hope you'll respect the fact that as a Christian, I cannot wear the abaya."

"Okay," he replied. "I respect your straightforwardness. C'mon over, and let's see what we can do about this."

Then, in November 2000, just 72 hours before my scheduled departure, a friend, the base chaplain in Saudi Arabia, sent me an e-mail, asking whether I was aware that the commander intended to make me abide by the policy. Over the next 24 hours, I exchanged e-mails with the commander's chief of staff and a military lawyer. I explained that I planned to wear loose-fitting Western clothing for my trip from the airport to the base, not the abaya. They argued that given the increasing terrorist threat in the Middle East, it was more important than ever for American servicewomen to blend in among the Saudis and avoid harassment from the local religious police. Calling the abaya policy a "lawful order," they threatened me with a court-martial if I disobeyed.

The next day, I visited my commander in Washington, D.C. "Sir, I'm about to torch myself over my conviction," I said.

"If you're committed to changing the policy, put aside your personal conviction one time," he advised. "If you disobey the order, you'll never get it changed."

After a night of prayer, I decided to take his advice. Arriving at Prince Sultan Air Base in the middle of the night, I was ushered into a small tent, given a quick briefing and handed an abaya. Then I was escorted to a car with dark-tinted windows and, as the only woman in the group, directed to sit in the backseat for the ride to our base. I felt humiliated and angry. It struck me as ludicrous that the Air Force will let me go up alone in a single engine fighter jet over enemy territory, but won't let me sit in the front seat of a car on a Saudi street.

During my first month, I didn't complain about the dress code; I wanted to prove that I was a competent, professional officer, not a loose-cannon troublemaker. But I also didn't wear the abaya. Rather than leave base for duty, I sent my deputy and other subordinates to represent me at meetings in town. Soon, my direct supervisor questioned my behavior and urged me to talk to the commander again.

When we met, I gave the commander a point paper that explained why the abaya policy was discriminatory, and also suggested how it could be changed. But he wasn't swayed.

"You're the only one who cares about it," he said. "It's not changing."

In April 2001, a USA Today reporter requested an interview after hearing about my crusade from a Congressional staffer. By going public, I knew I was putting my career in jeopardy, but I saw no chance of reform unless I took my case to the widest audience possible. My strategy paid off: After the story ran on the front page, my commander agreed to review the policy and five Republican senators wrote to Secretary Rumsfeld, urging him to change it.

Interestingly, my crusade has brought support from liberals, feminists and religious conservatives. John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, of Charlottesville, Virginia, the civil liberties organization that represented Paula Jones in her suit against President Clinton, offered free legal assistance if I wanted to sue the government. I declined, explaining that I still believed the policy could be changed without litigation.

Every few weeks, I asked for an update on the policy review. I never received a clear answer, and by August, my patience had expired. When my superiors told me, "It's not coming anytime soon," I asked the Rutherford Institute to draft the lawsuit. It was a painful decision to sue the U.S. government, but I believe the military left me no choice.


Courage and Conviction

At work, the reaction to my lawsuit was mixed. Though I got support from my subordinates and peers, my direct superiors -- two men who report to the commander -- reprimanded me in person and in writing. My superiors believe that the choices I've made are both disloyal and unprofessional. Of course, I respectfully disagree.

Throughout my career, I've been treated with dignity, so I don't believe the military intends to demean our service women. The dress code simply became the status quo, getting passed down from one commander to the next without question. As one of my former supervisors said, "When I ordered you to go off base for duty, Martha, I didn't even think about the abaya policy." That's part of the problem.

My other reason for fighting this policy is to keep sexism from creeping onto the base. What the policy subtly communicates is that women aren't as valuable as men. And that's not a message the military should send.

Once the lawsuit was filed, I did a series of interviews to raise awareness about the issue and generate political pressure on the Defense Department. My efforts have brought some progress. In January, the military amended the policy so that women are "strongly encouraged," but no longer required to wear the abaya when they leave the base. In February, the requirements banning women from sitting in the front seat and leaving the base unescorted were dropped -- but, again, are encouraged. I'm concerned, though, that a phrase like "strongly encouraged" could be construed as an order in the military. We've got a way to go, so I won't drop my lawsuit.

Not surprisingly, the government filed a motion to dismiss my lawsuit. At the hearing in April, the judge encouraged us to settle, and I went to the settlement meeting hoping that we could reach agreement. I'm not at liberty to disclose the terms we discussed, but I believe my requests were reasonable -- and yet they were met with tremendous arrogance by the government's lawyers. At this point, a settlement looks unlikely.

Afterward, I filed an amended complaint that addresses some of the issues that were raised in the hearing. Once again, the government responded with another motion to dismiss the case. I'm not eager for a multi-year court battle, but I'm prepared to go the distance. I simply can't walk away from this cause when our troops are still being coerced into a policy that demeans and degrades women.

Right now, I'm hoping that Congress will fix this problem for good. This spring, I took my crusade to my home-state congressman, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who co-sponsored legislation that would abolish the abaya policy. On May 14, I sat alone in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives, wearing my service dress uniform and listening to speeches from legislators on both sides of the aisle who support my position.

When the bill was passed, it was a healing and historic moment for me personally. I was overcome with emotion. Just a year ago, my commander told me that nobody cared about the abaya policy except me. Now, there are hundreds of members of the U.S. House of Representatives who care about the injustice of the abaya policy and want to rescind it. The legislation has been referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee as a free-standing bill -- and I'm hopeful that it will pass there and become law.

I'm now stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Tucson, Arizona, working the staff job I requested at the end of my tour in Saudi Arabia last December. To hone my management skills, I'm a flight commander, supervising 60 enlisted personnel and nine officers at an Air Operations Center.

I'm committed to the Air Force through October 2003, so I haven't determined my next move yet. If I feel called to stay in the military, I will do so regardless of where my career is going. If I feel called to leave, I'll leave. In the meantime, I'll continue to serve the country I love with dignity, as I have for the past 18 years. And I hope that whenever I leave the Air Force, I'll be remembered as a dedicated officer and warrior -- and a woman who stood up for her beliefs.

Cynthia Hanson is a Philadelphia-based writer who frequently contributes to Ladies' Home Journal magazine.