A Summit at West Point

As West Point conferences go, it was a great event at the United States Military Academy this past weekend. Graduates from many different walks of life attended; a 2002 grad, currently leading the Illinois Dept. of Veterans' Affairs, talked about how Army and Academy experience informed support for veterans. A cadet panel impressed the "Old Grads" with their tales of tough field training and international adventures -- one combat-arms-destined senior joked about being nicknamed "Ranger Roger" by other cadets.

In a panel about healing, a survivor of severe spinal cord injury from a parachute accident (not the only grad in the room with that experience) joined a cancer survivor to talk about their work helping others with more serious problems. A two-star general spoke movingly of eleven soldiers lost on deployment in Iraq, while another general nodded mutely; another senior officer talked about realizing that a third deployment had triggered PTSD symptoms.

The head of the Academy's Psychology curriculum talked about "resiliency training," preparing troops to survive the emotional challenges of battle. A Navy Captain talked about flying combat aircraft.

The dinner speaker, whose remarkable resume included for-profit and nonprofit leadership, an award-winning book and a run for Congress inspired and entertained the audience with the story of making a bid to compete as a bobsledder in the 2002 Winter Olympics, and coaching young volleyball players.

Most moving was the memorial. The reading of names of those lost: on the battlefield, to cancer, some tragically to suicide. The Chaplain -- yet another West Point grad -- reminding us of the business we're in, and how the reminder of death can keep us living life, every second, in support of our values and our personal missions. The playing of taps. And the sound of voices raised, many tear-filled, singing the verses of the Alma Mater.

In particular, that last -- the raised voices -- was stunning. Because all the voices were female.

This was the West Point Women's Summit, and each of those mentioned above (except Navy Captain Michelle Guidry) was a woman graduate (or cadet) of the Academy: Erica Borggren '02, Cadet Sara Roger '13, Nancy Hogan '95, Joan Grey '80, Lil Pfluke '80, MG Heidi Brown '81, BG (ret) Anne McDonald '80, COL Donna Brazil '83, Donna McAleer '87, Cynthia Lindenmeyer '90.

The class of '80 -- the first class to include women -- was well-represented, as 17 of those 62 graduates attended. Perhaps the '80 women are particularly fearless, but they were not the only ones raising their voices during raucous panels to correct a fact or challenge a position.

A panel about combat roles for women included three male combat vets talking about why including women in these roles was important for the Army, and they were joined by the aforementioned Navy pilot, a blunt and commanding woman who pointed out tersely that "it's all about performance. Period." They were joined on the panel by a somewhat-overmatched Colonel sent by the Army G-1 staff (a woman, perhaps not coincidentally) who had the thankless task of explaining why it would take three years of study to implement the Secretary of Defense's lifting of the ban this year.

In response to a question, the G-1 Colonel said, "We would love to have your input, but with current funding levels, we can't afford to bring people in for these discussions..."

"Everybody in this room," interrupted Capt. Guidry, "who would travel anywhere, any time, on your own dime, to provide input on this issue, raise your hands." Almost every hand went up as she sat back in her chair.

In a briefing about the current status of the Cadet Corps, attendees sharply challenged the gender composition, currently at 16%, "to match the percentage of women in the Army."

"Why would you match the current composition, when it's clearly going to rise?" argued one. "We need to lead on this, not follow!" The point that matching the Army's current percentage in a new class of plebes doesn't even match the Army's subsequent requirement for lieutenants four years later, much less senior officers for the Army of 2025 and beyond, who seemed not to have been considered.

Another: "Just because the Army's at 16% doesn't make it right, or good for the Army! There's no real effort to attract talented women."

Another: "We know there are issues of culture at West Point. Women think that a male mentor is better than a woman mentor -- a direct consequence of keeping them at an arbitrary low number."

Another: "Data shows that at levels below 20%, any group will have a minority mindset, and that's why you have some of these issues. You need 30-35% women here to have a healthy culture."

There was as much laughter as contention throughout the weekend, as many old-grad stories were trotted out, but the gathering was infused with a reverence and respect for the young officers currently fighting our battles. Toward the end, the conference was interrupted with the news that the husband of an attendee -- herself a company commander -- had been shot in Afghanistan. We gathered around her in prayer.

This is the business we're in. And we never forget it. Those of us who no longer wear the uniform never forget our debt. The one thing we share was articulated by dinner speaker Donna McAleer '87, as she was honored for her own service: "Our oath to our country, to the Constitution, our commitment to serve, has no expiration date."

33 years after women first graduated West Point, we know what women can do. If the Army is ever to "be all that we can be," we need to stop marginalizing women.