Then-1st Lt. Jennifer Holmes met retired Brig. Gen. Robin Olds in 2005. (Courtesy Maj. Jennifer Holmes)
One way to build camaraderie is to have a friendly competition. I, like everyone else, love a good, spirited competition. But I am not invited to be a part of the latest team-building game, Mustache March. I have been relegated to the bench to cheer the real players on.
I have been placed on this bench in the name of Air Force tradition, in the name of a war hero. But, the fact is, this “gauntlet” thrown down by the most senior leader in our Air Force does not bring us together by tradition; it promotes the long-standing “boys club” that continues to drive amazing female airmen out of the military.
I have been in the Air Force for nearly 18 years. I started as an airman basic at age 17. I earned my commission and was a regular officer for five years before putting myself through law school to become a judge advocate general. I have seen everything, from dorm parties to the wild pilot parties in Korea. I have mocked my friends and my husband for years as they grew their hideous mustaches every March. When I was stationed in Korea, they also did “flat-top February” shortly after “no-hair November.” The three events right after each other made for trying, albeit amusing, times.
I support the men acting like men just like I support the women acting like women. I, and circles of my friends, have been guilty of getting overly excited over a shoe sale or a new hair stylist in town. I also agree that we are all different and not every man finds Mustache March fun and not every woman cares about shoe sales. I support our differences and think both genders are amazing.
The Air Force, no doubt the military as a whole, is still somewhat of a “boys club.” I can say this with confidence as I have moved from base to base, nine bases to be exact, and I have enough stories to fill a novel. Here are a few:
■ A commander told me to write the civilian spouses’ newsletter because the other officers in the squadron were male and all the spouses were female. I was not and had never been married.
■ A commander told me I needed to make him coffee and pick up donuts for his meetings. No male had ever been asked to make him coffee. He also asked why I did not bake cookies for everyone when we were in an exercise.
■ I worked in a legal office comprised solely of male attorneys. A few of them welcomed me, but the others despised me. A male captain was left in charge when both of the bosses were out of town. He changed the on-call schedule and told me that I, instead of the scheduled junior male captain, had to work the weekend. I found out Monday that all the male captains in the office took a trip to New Orleans.
I’ve been winked at, talked down to, asked if I was going to cry and been the subject of dirty jokes. But, I always work my way in until I become “one of the guys.” For the record, no, I did not make coffee or bake cookies for any of my commanders.
In a day when the Air Force is under so much scrutiny, it seems almost impossible to me that our leadership has driven a blatant, public wedge between the women and the men. Our most senior leader has started a camaraderie game exclusively for the men. That, in and of itself is, or should be, offensive to every female who is supposed to be part of the same Air Force team.
What is worse, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh then said that female airmen still have a role to play: “to ridicule [the men] nonstop about the idiotic look that these mustaches will have.” Stated differently, we are allowed to sit on the sidelines in our cute skirts and cheer for the men!
Women, in reaction, will fall in one of three categories:
■ There will be women who say something and point out how the “boys club” is alive and well and sanctioned by our senior leaders. Those women will be attacked for being “feminists” or “man-haters.”
■ There will be women who say they think this is a great idea. They will rise against any female who says she is against it. I do not blame these women. I too have responded to issues this same way. I have said those magic words, “Just let the boys be boys.” I have sung the nauseating fighter pilot songs. I have laughed at inappropriate jokes. I have done these things to be accepted and to show the men that I am not a threat but an ally.
■ Likely the largest category will be women who stay silent. No matter how they feel about the issue, they do not want to be labeled either way. They will continue to work and prove they are worthy.
I am writing this because I haven’t seen such a blatant showing of the “boys club” in the Air Force since I joined. In writing this, I know what is coming my way. I will get comments from men and women who will be so angry and mean they will be devastating. People will say I am jealous. They will say I must suck at my job. They will say I should concern myself with work and not with the “boys” and their mustaches. They will tell me to get a sense of humor. They will say, “shut up,” as many have said to those who already voiced their opinions online.
I am thinking about this backlash as I write this. But, I am also thinking about the many women, AND men, who tell me they are appalled by this man-only morale-building game, yet no one will speak up.
I have no doubt that General Welsh had no ill intentions. Until this moment, I had always thought Mustache March was funny. When the men decide to do it on their own, or when a group in a squadron gets together and decides to do something silly on their own, it is fun and funny. But when the most senior person in the Air Force turns it into a morale-building event for the whole Air Force — well, the whole Air Force excluding the women — it is not funny or fun anymore.
I would ask everyone to think about this: Would this be OK if Air Force leadership had an Air Force-wide team-building competition that completely excluded other minority groups?
Ironically, Brig. Gen. Robin Olds grew the mustache as a “middle finger” to leadership. Now that leadership has sanctioned this event, I have no doubt that, if General Olds were here, he would shave his mustache off in protest!
Maj. Jennifer Holmes is a senior trial counsel stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Md.