Female veterans reflect on the role of women in the military at panel

Sunday, November 17, 2019 - 5:43pm

The University of Michigan Veteran and Military Services organized and hosted a Women in the Military panel Friday.

The University of Michigan Veteran and Military Services organized and hosted a Women in the Military panel Friday. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The University of Michigan Veteran and Military Services organized and hosted a Women in the Military panel Friday. The six panelists, all female veterans, spoke as part of the University Veteran’s Week to an audience of about 25 students, veterans and other members of the Ann Arbor community. 

Jan Malaikal, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, moderated the panel. She began by asking the panelists to introduce themselves, give a brief overview of their service and talk about why they joined the military. 

Jennifer Lamb, who served as a mortar ballistic computer weapons specialist and a supply officer for the U.S. Marine Corps, talked about how she was the first woman in history to cross the Arctic Circle in a rigid rubber raft, and only the third woman ever to be trained in her profession. She said she joined the military to fund her college education. 

“I joined because I was poor,” she said. “The military does help pay for college. So, I was in the Marine Corps reserves so I could finish my college.”

Another panelist, Colleen Schoenfeld, who served in the U.S. Army as an administrative specialist and apache pilot, had a different story. She came from a military family, and said she always knew she was going to serve. 

“The military itself was kind of a given for me. My family is all military, so it’s kind of the family business,” Schoenfeld said. “I always knew I was going into the military. Just depended on which branch and which job.”

Kinesiology senior Leona Keller, who served as a U.S. Marine Corps intelligence analyst, said she joined after coming across the Marines at a career fair. 

“We had a career fair at my school,” she said. “The Marines just drew me in. I was like, this is it, this is what I’m gonna do. And that’s what I did.” 

The panelists were then asked about some of the biggest challenges they faced in the military due to their gender and background. 

Schoenfeld talked about hiding her sexuality due to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture. 

“That was always something in the back of your mind,” Schoenfeld said. “Hiding who you are so that you’re not kicked out and lose your career.”

Michele Curry, who served as a medical logistics officer in the U.S. Army, mentioned the stereotyping that came with being in the military and how it was challenging for her to not be defined by those stereotypes. 

“It was a perception, people joined the military who didn’t have any kind of direction, or didn’t have goals in life, or didn’t know what they wanted to do,” Curry said. “And obviously that’s not the case.”

Curry believes that by defying these stereotypes herself, she learned a lot about not having a judgmental or biased outlook towards other people. 

“It opened my eyes personally to changing my paradigm and my view about a lot of different things and people,” Curry said. “And so for that I will forever be grateful for the military. Because it humbled me in a great way.”

Mary Lou Auchus, who served as a hematology oncology physician in the United States Air Force, talked about the challenges of being a female physician during her training, and also touched on the changes that have occurred since her own service. 

“Do I hang out with the other male physicians or do I hang out with their wives? There’s some expectation to do both,” she said. “That’s changed a lot. Now there’s a lot of women in medicine.” 

The moderator then asked the panelists how their experiences translated into teachable moments. The panelists touched on the importance of teamwork, resilience and breaking stereotypes. 

Lamb spoke about breaking the stereotypes commonly associated with the military. 

“You can love glitter and camouflage,” Lamb said. “You can be soft-spoken and also be really tough at the same time.”

Curry touched on the importance of teamwork in order to work toward a common goal. 

“The military taught me that I can work with people. I may not like them, I may not agree with everything that they say,” Curry said. “But when the time comes for us to accomplish the mission, the goal and the purpose, I can unify with people to get that done.” 

Schoenfeld noted how being in the military gave her a unique perspective.

“You come out into the civilian world and things that are stressing folks out, you’re like, well, you know, nobody’s actually gonna die if this falls through,” Schoenfeld said. “So yeah, resiliency and perspective, is I think what I learned from the military.”

The panel opened up to questions from the audience. The first question was about whether the panelists believed they had been properly trained for the situations they found themselves in during their service.

Schoenfeld said that while they were well-trained, sometimes they were required to respond to situations that they were not prepared for. 

“There is a lot of training. You’re very skilled in whatever you’re trained to do,” Schoenfeld said.  “But they also put you in situations where you have to learn on the job. So, it’s fun.”

The panel concluded with a question about how panelists viewed their interactions with other females during their service. 

Curry talked about the element of competition between women in the military, especially in the physical aspects of training. 

“There was a system where someone would be rewarded for being the best trainee,” Curry said, “In my female trainee group there was always someone that was trying to let it be known that they could be the best, physical wise. They could do the most pushups; they could run the fastest.” 

However, the panelists also emphasized the collaborative environment and bond between females within the military. Keller said the women formed a supportive community.

“We always had each other’s backs, we were always looking out for each other,” Keller said. “Sometimes you just need that person, who is also a woman, who understands what you’re going through. Because we were all in a male-dominated field.”