West Point experience illustrates changing role of women in military

Correction: Earliers versions of this article, including in Friday’s print edition of The Post, incorrectly referred to Col. Sylvia Moran as a lieutenant colonel. This version has been corrected.

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 17, 2011

In a chandeliered room packed with Army generals sat a 93-year-old woman in a bright red sweater, shaking her head.

“People of your generation don’t understand that we never even imagined this could happen,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Grace Mueller. “Didn’t even consider it.”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Not far from her sat a 19-year-old woman in the gray uniform of a West Point cadet, her hair in a tight bun, her back straight and her face stern as she tried to properly conquer a chicken Milanese while sitting next to a retired general.

Jennifer Hazlett, who was recruited by three military academies and wants to be a pilot when she graduates, couldn’t imagine a time when all this couldn’t happen.

In between these two women at an awards luncheon on Capitol Hill sat those who’d made the breakthrough, some of the first women to graduate from West Point.

You wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a crowd, which somehow feels appropriate for a country on the verge of allowing women to serve in formal combat roles for the first time. The West Point pioneers have pretty silk scarves tied around their necks, or they wear sweater sets. They’re mothers and consultants and program directors and volunteers.

But in the summer of 1976, when their friends were all about K.C. and the Sunshine Band or their Nadia Comaneci haircuts, they made history by enrolling in the nation’s bastion of military macho-ness, a place that banned women for 174 years.

It was a grueling experience.

“We weren’t welcome,” said Col. Sylvia Moran, who, 31 years later, is the only female member of that first class still on active duty.

It’s not just Moran’s uniform that pegs her as hard-core military. She almost seems made of steel. Her face, her haircut, her uniform are crisp, solid, strong.

Her nickname at West Point — where her male colleagues made it clear daily that they didn’t want her there — was Stoneface.

She does judo and jumps out of planes and kicked butt at the French War College in Paris, where she told off one dismissive Frenchman en Francais when he didn’t issue the proper intelligence information.

Her specialty is the Middle East. She’s in military intelligence. As you might imagine, she’s been busy the past 10 years. And she’s made an impression.

From South Korea to Baghdad to the Pentagon, many of the men who have served with her will never forget her.

“I’ve had a few good bosses, but I’d like to tell you about the BEST boss I ever had,” wrote Steve Hawk, a manager out in Idaho, in an online discussion about management skills. He hasn’t seen or spoken to Moran in nearly 30 years, but he remembered being under her command in an 82nd Airborne Division platoon.

“She was the smallest person in our unit — but on forced marches, her pack was usually the largest. She led by example, motivated without raising her voice, and set the standard for the entire unit with her actions, words and demeanor. . . . To this day I try to apply the management and leadership traits that I learned from her example.”

I believe that was the platoon that never once beat her physical fitness scores — a challenge she threw down to them with a three-day pass as a reward. One man tied her in push-ups. “Eighty-one,” she noted. “In two minutes.”

Stoneface actually giggled and maybe even blushed a little when I told her about Hawk’s ode to her.

Like most of the women in the Class of 1980, Moran didn’t grow up aspiring to West Point. She was a math and science geek, and the year she graduated from high school was the year West Point was opened to women. So she thought she’d give it a go. Of the 118 other women she started with in 1976, only 62 graduated.

I asked Moran, a former special adviser to then-Vice President Cheney who now serves as the executive officer to the director of the Army Staff, if she remembers a moment when she wanted to quit.

“Ha!” she said. The question should’ve been, “Do you remember a moment you didn’t want to quit?”

Every night, 17-year-old Sylvia Moran would lie on her bunk, convinced she was going to quit in the morning. Then she woke up and went on.

When she returned to West Point in 1990 to teach Arabic and French and to coach the judo team, she could see the change in the way women were treated, she said.

Moran plans to retire this spring, just as the Pentagon prepares to review the role of women in combat.

Grace Mueller, the 93-year-old who enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942, was a personnel clerk and drill sergeant, but she said she never imagined they’d let women into combat.

So much has changed, Mueller observed.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll issued this week, seven out of 10 Americans said they support giving women direct combat roles. If the holdouts ever met Moran, they’d change their minds.

Then run.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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