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Opinion: A setback for AF's strong women

Apr. 2, 2014 - 11:15AM   |  
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Sara Zak, a retired Navy commander, writes: 'Some women are insulted by Mustache March and anything else that ignores or disrespects the struggles, sacrifices, contributions and accomplishments that give us the right to call ourselves warriors and declare, 'This is OUR Air Force, too.'' (Courtesy photo)

As Sexual Assault Awareness Month starts up, Women’s History Month winds down and March mustaches get shaved off. These three events are connected by the intangible thread of military culture.

Unlike in previous years, when Mustache March was kept below the radar, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh issued the challenge Air Force-wide this year as a morale booster. However, the ostensibly humorous contest sparked an online war of words between the appreciative and the offended parties that reflects hostility, disrespect and resentment in the workplace.

Many airmen welcomed the contest and praised General Welsh for his leadership. A few drew fire for observing the inconsistency between Mustache March and the zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment.

Several other groups of airmen were affronted by direct and subtle aspects of Mustache March, which is naturally exclusive of women, but discrimination was probably the least offensive factor. The general’s assignment of women to a support role was taken as more disrespectful because it demeaned the women in the military who have worked with dedication and loyalty for more than 35 years to be recognized as more than support.

Some women, especially those who entered the Air Force in the 1970s, may have been most seriously offended by the sexist attitude of superiority that accompanies the tradition. That is, since the mustache is the symbol of a bulletproof warrior, sexist logic concludes that, since women can’t grow mustaches, women can’t be warriors.

For over three decades, women have been showing the physical strength and moral courage to succeed in the military and become warriors. The recent war on terrorism finally provided a combat opportunity for women to demonstrate their war- fighting skills. They suffered traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs and lives, along with the men. Some “bulletproof” Air Force women came home with special recognition, including Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Women in the military have come a long way since the 1970s when the draft and Vietnam War both ended. Women were already in the military, mostly as nurses, but more were needed to fill empty billets that men did not — and still don’t — fill voluntarily. We were proud to serve our country. However, it was clear we were not welcome. There was an ever-present signal that, “You don’t belong in MY Air Force,” and other messages of male superiority.

So, some women are insulted by Mustache March and anything else that ignores or disrespects the struggles, sacrifices, contributions and accomplishments that give us the right to call ourselves warriors and declare, “This is OUR Air Force, too.”

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, consider that an action with a sexist attitude is the lowest level of sexual assault. Although the impact of General Welsh’s challenge is insignificant compared with the severe impact of sexual assault, there are similarities between the two. They each include a behavior that conveys superiority. Each, as an offense, is difficult to report to authorities for fear of retaliation. A victim of sexual assault may feel that alcohol consumption trivializes the assault or fear her report will be ignored due to the seniority of the offender. Someone offended by the Mustache March challenge may feel that the intended humor of the contest outweighs its offensiveness.

This is a picture of the military culture that must be overcome in order to stop military sexual assault. That will be difficult to accomplish, however, when the most senior leaders do not even recognize (or correct) sexist attitudes and behaviors — even when right under their noses.■

Sara Zak is a retired Navy commander who was commissioned in 1980. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.

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