A few hours later, her grandfather replied, writing, “I remain convinced that women are better at giving life than taking it.” He added that although women play an important role in the Army, he thinks that they have no place in combat units.
No family better captures the flurry of debate triggered by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s historic announcement this week than the Warners. The decision alters decades of military tradition and opens new opportunities for women and a new debate on their role in the military.
Four of Warner’s eight grandchildren — two of them women — have fought in the Iraq and Afghan wars. In 2005, one of his granddaughters, 1st Lt. Laura M. Walker, was leading her engineer unit in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb detonated beneath her vehicle and killed her. The 24-year-old was the first female U.S. Military Academy graduate to die in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Their family story shows the progress made by women in the military in the past decade. But it also highlights the significant ground women must still cover to win acceptance in the military’s last all-male bastions.
As a general commanding the 9th Infantry Division in the 1970s, Warner oversaw the integration of women into hundreds of non-combat arms-support jobs. “There was little time to prepare,” he said. “They just started to arrive.”
Soon, he found himself officiating disputes over whether hair should be tucked under steel helmets and how to handle crying female soldiers.
After a few months, he decided that his initial doubts about the women were misplaced. “Their job performance was what surprised me,” he said. “The first group of women were better than the men. They really wanted to be there and knew they were part of an advanced guard.”
Decades later, as a grandfather, he suggested that all of his grandchildren consider a career in the Army. “I encouraged them to take on something more important than themselves and told them the military is a good place to do it,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Two granddaughters, Laura and Valerie, took his advice. They were smart, athletic and eager to prove that they were just as capable as their male counterparts. While Laura was at West Point, Valerie attended George Mason University and enrolled in ROTC.
Before the two deployed in 2004 — Laura to Afghanistan and Valerie to Iraq — Warner offered them the same advice: “Follow in the tracks of those ahead of you. . . . Keep a round in the chamber. Take care of your soldiers. Do not try to be a hero.”
These days, a painting of Walker in her uniform hangs in the hallway of his home in McLean. Warner, 86, calls her death a “personal tragedy” but insists that his opposition to women in combat jobs is driven by his experiences in fighting wars, not the loss of his granddaughter.