The following is a guest post by Sam Meier, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow working with the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer.
For decades, women’s military careers have been constrained by the assumption that they are less physically capable than men. Even today, those who oppose complete gender integration often assert that gender-based physiological differences, particularly those pertaining to menstruation, pregnancy, and sexual health, are insurmountable obstacles for cisgender women in the military, particularly in direct combat situations. (Transgender women are generally precluded from this conversation, though their role in the military is also often discussed in terms of health needs.) This summer, as my fellow Junior Fellow Lisa Gomez and I reviewed the Veterans History Project’s collections donated by female veterans, I kept returning to the same question: how do women who served think about their own bodies and their physical capabilities?
The answer, as one might predict, is that different veterans with different bodies have different points of view. But one oral history interview in particular stayed with me due to its candor. It spoke to a theme which Lisa and I have been investigating throughout our work; namely, the persistent challenges of being a woman in the service, and women’s determination to overcome each and every one of them.
Maria Connie Villescas joined the United States Marine Corps in 1982 at the age of 22. As she related in her oral history interview, she wanted to get out of her native Los Angeles, the only place she’d ever lived. Her sister and uncle were both serving in the Marine Corps, and so she decided to follow in their footsteps.
Villescas entered boot camp in January of 1983. In the 1980s, female Marines weren’t getting the same training as their male counterparts. All women in the military were forbidden from holding combat roles, and these gender-based role restrictions were reflected in the Marines’ basic training. A 1986 Marine Corps publication titled Women Marines in the 1980’s noted, “Women officers receive identical and consolidated training in all areas except where the combat restriction and physiological limitations pertain, i.e., offensive combat, physical fitness training, and sword manual [emphasis added].”
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
After completing boot camp, Villescas was assigned her Military Occupational Specialty (MOS): motor transport. At Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, she trained as a motor vehicle operator of 18-wheeler trucks—a role which previously had only been filled by men. Even as recently as 2012, only about 76% of the positions available within the motor vehicle operator MOS were open to women. As Villescas recalled in her oral history interview,
At that time, 1983, women just didn’t drive combat trucks, because women weren’t allowed in combat. But we were the first group to get selected. And there was probably about eight females, and three of us passed.
Villescas spent her first four years driving tractor-trailers around Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. Eventually, she earned the begrudging respect of those to whom she referred as “old farts,” who initially questioned whether this petite 5’2” woman could drive such large vehicles. In her fifth year at Pendleton, she was given the opportunity to attend instructor school. She became the first female instructor to teach new Marines how to drive 16-wheeler vehicles—another milestone in her career.
OFF TO WAR…
Everything changed with the onset of the Persian Gulf War in 1990. She was given orders to deploy to Saudi Arabia. As Villescas recalled,
“When I got the orders to go, it was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to war.’ I mean, ‘This is real. This is real.’
The sad part is, women weren’t supposed to go to war up until then, so we were not trained like the women are trained now. That was the scariest part… I mean, you know, we never went to combat training. So they’re shipping us off and didn’t send us to combat training even a little bit beforehand. I mean they just—we went. And that was a concern. What was I going to see, how was I going to feel, being a female? You know, having our monthly cycle? How was that going to affect us? Affect me?”
She was not alone in her concerns. Military officials and civilians alike wondered how well the all-volunteer force would fare in the first major conflict since the Vietnam War. One thing was certain: the Persian Gulf War would be a proving ground for female service members. According to a 1993 report to the Secretary of Defense, women made up roughly 7% of the total number of active duty U.S. troops who deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
As she prepared to depart, Villescas grappled with the emotional realities of leaving her partner and two children. But she couldn’t be open about her grief. If the Marines learned that her partner was a woman—that Villescas identified as a lesbian—they could force her to leave the service. Knowing that, at any moment, the military could expel her from the Marines based on her sexual orientation made her stress even more acute. As she put it, “It’s like trying to serve your country, yet at the same time they’re trying to get you.”
Villescas arrived in Saudi Arabia in late October of 1990, a few months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August. The goal was to eventually go into Kuwait to repel the Iraqi military forces led by Saddam Hussein. But before that could happen, the Marines had to set up camp. Villescas stayed in the rear unit, building outhouses, setting up cots, and digging holes. By December, the Marines had moved to within 15 miles of the Kuwaiti border. Each day, Villescas and the other drivers transported fuel and water to the forward elements, switching shifts in a 24-hour rotation. By January 15, 1991, the 1st Force Service Support Group had managed to move all of the equipment and personnel needed for the planned U.S. airstrike in-theater.
Even before Operation Desert Storm officially commenced, Villescas realized that she was closer to war than she had ever anticipated she would be. One night, she awoke to the “percussion of rounds going off”—the earth-shaking sound of an aerial bombing. Scrambling to shepherd the 14 other women in her unit to the perimeter, she fled her tent wearing only her sweatpants. After that, she slept in her boots and cammies [camouflage uniform] every night. When Operation Desert Storm began in earnest, bombing at night became commonplace. As Villescas put it, “Life as we knew it went out the door.”
Then, in February, the ground war known as Operation Desert Shield kicked off. Villescas’ commanding officer came to her and told her that she would be going into Kuwait.
But women weren’t allowed in combat, Villescas replied, confused. Had the rules changed? When had female Marines been authorized to go into Kuwait? They hadn’t been authorized, the commanding officer told her. There was simply no one else available to drive the resupply vehicles.
Villescas hesitated. She told the commanding officer that she wasn’t refusing to go in. But, she said, she needed to know that the actions that she and the other female drivers took in Kuwait would be documented. They were going to be doing something that women had not yet been asked to do—that women, in fact, were prohibited from doing.
The commanding officer, also a female Marine, told her she understood. She would make sure that there was a record of their actions. Indeed, official Marine Corps accounts of the Persian Gulf War note that “Operation Desert Storm witnessed the greatest participation ever of women Marines in a combat operation. Apart from a lack of privacy at times, the presence of female Marines was not an issue within the force itself.”
PROBLEMS ON THE GROUND
To listen to Maria’s recollection of going into Kuwait in full, skip to 00:19:00 and listen until 00:25:00.
As Villescas recalled,
Talk about a milestone. You talk about a milestone of female tractor-trailer drivers taking a forward unit, a general and his whole element, into combat, was huge.
Not to mention the fact that I started my period.
I was under such stress. And I’m saying this also on camera because at the time, legislation, Congress, whoever—they didn’t want females in war, because of—that was one of the big reasons.
What’s a female to do without—there’s no outhouses there. We were driving through minefields, OK. You couldn’t just pull a vehicle over and just—even use the bathroom in the sand, because we were surrounded by minefields. So I had a dilemma. We didn’t take outhouses with us. I couldn’t just raise my hand and say, ‘Okay, the whole convoy needs to stop because Sergeant V needs to change.’
My stress level was off the charts. So what I did was— the Lord was with me, I have to say that. By the grace of God is how I got through this…
Anyhow, so I was able to wait until we actually stopped as a unit. And my truck, thank goodness, was a very large truck, 18-wheeler like I said. Thank God I’m short, I guess. This was one of the few instances I was glad I was short, because my tires are so large… They’re 500 pounds apiece. They come up to here. [gestures at her head]
I was able to get two of my favorite young lance corporals that stuck by me the entire time. Modesty goes out in war. I said, ‘Look, bottom line is, I’m on my period. I need to change. I’m surrounded by men, and I can’t go outside of this little trail that we’re on, because we’re surrounded by mine fields. I need one of you to stand here [gestures to one side] and one of you to stand here [gestures to the other side], and you’re going to keep everybody away within ten feet of this truck.’
And they’re like, ‘Sergeant V, whatever you need. We got your back.’
And I said, ‘Alright.’ Went under my truck, did my thing, came back out.
And that’s one way for females…So when they say that a female can’t go to war—where there’s a will, there’s a way, and when there’s a need, you’re going to find a way. Again, another milestone crossed, I guess.”
Villescas’ determination not to let her menstrual cycle interfere with what she had to do in the field is typical for servicewomen—at least according to the available data. A taboo lingers around the very topic. Searching VHP’s database to see if any other female veterans mentioned getting their periods in their oral history interviews, the keyword “menstruation” yielded only one result. (No luck with with “tampon,” “pad,” “menses,” and “period.”) Female veterans do sometimes talk about dealing with cramps, but these memories are hard to locate by keyword in VHP’s collections. As a 2007 Military Medicine article observes, “Women often hesitate to present concerns or to highlight difficulties in the field that are specifically female, because of a lingering fear that this would support the antiquated notion that women should be excluded from military service.” For some, simply stopping periods, cramps, and PMS during deployment is the best option. For those who continued to have their periods, like Villescas, it was (and is) just another problem to solve.
PACKING UP, HEADING HOME
After Operation Desert Shield ended, Villescas spent three months in Saudi Arabia packing up and tearing down the tent city she had been living in. She was sent home to the U.S. for about four months in 1991. Then she was redeployed to Iwakuni, Japan for a year. She realized then that she had to leave the Marines. There hadn’t been enough time for her to process what had happened in Saudi Arabia. She was dealing with the shock of war. And she had to leave her family again, a separation which resulted in the end of her relationship. After her tour of duty ended in 1993, Villescas prepared to leave the Marines, which she did in 1994.
Over her 11 years in the Marines, Villescas benefited from two huge changes for women in the service, particularly queer women: the institution of new rules regarding sexual harassment and President Bill Clinton’s 1993 Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which ended the active persecution and discharge of gay and lesbian service members (at least on paper). Though neither advancement resolved all of the issues facing female Marines, in her view, both were monumental steps forward. Reflecting on her service, Villescas said, “I’m still green inside. I’m still a Marine. The Marine Corps and the war made me the woman that I am today.”