MADISON, Wis. — Challenges are not the same as limitations, according to three Wisconsin National Guard females — two officers and one enlisted — who shared the varied experiences of their military careers as part of a Women's History Month observance, March 21, in Witmer Hall at Joint Force Headquarters.
Maj. Lan Swei, deputy domestic operations training director with the Wisconsin National Guard Joint Staff, came from a family without a strong military heritage or tradition of leadership.
"I wanted to be challenged," Swei said. "I want to learn new things — I don't like to do the same thing over and over. I think that's why the military was so great for me. My goal was not only to learn, but to be a better person.
"I think growing up overseas, I was always the oddball, the outcast," Swei continued. "Learning a different language when I was young, that's challenge enough. When I joined the military, it was another adventure, another life. When I came in I didn't think there were restrictions or limitations for me to join or have a career. I really didn't see it that way."
Lt. Col. Tammy Gross, deputy personnel director in the Wisconsin National Guard Joint Staff and commander of the 641st Troop Command battalion, said she did not perceive any barriers to her career when she was commissioned a second lieutenant.
"I think maybe as I matured and was looking for mentors, that's when I realized we had some areas where we needed to grow and develop as an organization," Gross said. "I don't think there were institutional barriers — I think it was that time in history when women were choosing the military as a career option."
Master Sgt. Deborah Severson, a Family Program assistant, began her career in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, left after completing her initial contract, and later returned to the Wisconsin Air National Guard. She has served as an officer and in the enlisted ranks.
"I've always had the perception that we make our own limitations," Severson said. "I didn't ever feel that there was a ceiling or a limitation other than some of the 'female' limitations — you're maybe not accepted in a certain area because you're a female. I joined in 1979, 1980 and things were definitely different then. But I've worked in the civilian sector and it's there, too — it's not just a military thing."
Gross agreed that an individual's mindset determines how women approach challenges in their military career.
"You also have to not be afraid to see the opportunities and take advantage of the opportunities you are given," Gross said. "When I was a 20-year-old cadet I was very frustrated that [the field of] combat arms wasn't open to women — at that time I would have been up for the challenge. I'm actually surprised to see that change happening during my career … But I'm sure there are plenty of men who feel they have met their limits, too."
Severson spoke of challenges as opportunities to excel.
"To be honest, every step of my career has been pure determination," Severson said. "Give me another obstacle — I'm going to overcome it. I think that lends itself to people succeeding in the military as well. It doesn't matter if you're male or female, it's just having that determination to make it to the next level and stick it out and overcome those challenges. And don't take 'no' for an answer."
Swei agreed, noting that even in the male-dominant maintenance field, where she began her career, she experienced no gender bias.
"I don't think gender has anything to do with that," Swei said. "To me I guess it's your personality and how you want to take a challenge. I'm not afraid of taking it and running with it, and I'm going to prove you wrong. You shouldn't shy away because it's an all-man world — that doesn't matter."
A young soldier related one gender-specific barrier she encountered in her career. While on Full-Time National Guard orders, she became pregnant and was not allowed to extend her orders as pregnancy is considered a medical profile — soldiers on profile are subject to certain restrictions, including special work orders.
"I thought it was really unfair because a male on FTNG orders whose wife became pregnant would not have that limitation," she said. "If I had been a single mother and I didn't have insurance from my husband, I would have come into a lot of financial hardship."
Family responsibilities can pose a significant challenge to military careers. Gross noted that, years ago, it was common for female service members to leave the service when they became pregnant, while today it is common to stay in. That was a situation she did not personally experience, Gross acknowledged.
"I made the choice of career over family," she said. "That was a hard decision but that's the one I chose, and I don't regret it."
Swei said she has no family yet — "My entire time so far has been my career," she said.
Severson had no children when she joined the military, but now has two stepdaughters who maintain a relationship with their biological mother.
"I find myself sometimes giving the military choices higher precedence just because it's important to me," Severson admitted. "If I was the only mother, I think it would be different — I think it would be tough because it is hard to balance. I have other resources to provide that balance."
Lt. Col. Sherry Holly, with the 115th Fighter Wing's Inspector General's office, observed that many female service members seek to accomplish career benchmarks early rather than waiting for opportune moments, and often opt to leave the service if family responsibilities interfere with reaching those benchmarks.
"I don't think that we can't solve those problems, but it takes some creative maneuvering and communications to make it happen," Holly said.
"As supervisors we need to be having those conversations and making accommodations to help our employees balance their life," Gross agreed.
"Since 1980 I think there's been a huge shift in support of the family," Severson added. "There's just more awareness — the military understands how important family is."
Despite the recent opening of combat arms to women, Gross and Severson were reluctant to suggest that females had fewer opportunities 20 years ago than today.
"We say that the military is a pretty gender-neutral organization and we promote the best and the brightest — the right person for the right job at the right time," Gross said. "They have more role models, so they have an opportunity to see women in higher positions, so maybe it's more visible that they have those opportunities, but I think those opportunities were there 20 years ago."
Severson said she saw fewer females advance when she first joined.
"Maybe that was the unit I was with," she allowed. "But I think it doesn't mean there weren't the same opportunities, and maybe it just happened that those people rose to the top because of who they were, male or female."
Gross said that Army aviation opened up to females 20 years ago, paving the way for women entering combat arms units today. She recounted being challenged as a young platoon leader by "crusty Vietnam-era pilots" who wanted to see if she would be "one of the guys."
"Would I smoke cigars with them? Would I drink with them? Would I go to strip clubs with them? Where's that line?" she said.
More practical issues had to be resolved, such as sharing one tent in the field during annual training. A partition provided a bit of privacy for the female lieutenant.
"Those were all accommodations that had to be discussed," Gross recalled. "We made it through — aviation made it through."
"I feel sorry for the men in those [all-male] units," Severson said, "because when those doors open up and those women start marching through and joining those units where they're not accustomed to that, I think it's some of those males who will realize they have to change some of their thinking, adjust to some of the females joining the units."
Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, assistant adjutant general for Army, noted that senior leaders are not developed overnight, but grown over the years.
"If we want to continue the diversity of our organization, we really have to work at the junior level — our company-grade officers and our mid-grade noncommissioned officers — to give them those opportunities and also the mentorship to move on up into the leadership positions, to get the credentials and get the experiences so that they are competitive at the senior level," Anderson said. "At the end of the day we really do strive to find the best and the brightest at the right time and the right place."
Gross said that encouragement and recommendations, such as telling a mid-level noncommissioned officer they had the potential to become a unit first sergeant, may persuade females to pursue senior enlisted positions. Col. Julie Gerety, operations director with the Wisconsin National Guard Joint Staff, agreed that leaders and supervisors need to accept that females may need to leave and return. Master Sgt. Deborah DeJager, a human resources specialist with the Wisconsin National Guard, suggested that some junior female noncommissioned officers are leaving the force due to a lack of information about, or faith in, advancement opportunities.
"I truly look forward to the day that the Wisconsin National Guard has a female state command sergeant major," DeJager said. "I believe it can be done."
Severson summed up the discussion.
"I don't know about any of the other females in this room, but I personally don't feel I'm looked at as a female in this organization — I really don't," she said. "I'm looked at as a professional doing her job, and it's all based on performance and who you are, your personality."