The Fight of My Life
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.