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Society & Culture

They Needed Women More Than They Thought: Drexel Veterans Speak on the Role of Women in the Military

March 9, 2016

Colleen Farrell in Afghanistan

Colleen Farrell in Afghanistan

Five current and graduated Drexel veterans had gathered in the Creese Student Center on March 2 to share their experiences serving in the military as women. Well, five women and a dog, Gula.

The panel, organized by Rebecca Weidensaul, PhD, associate dean of students, and moderated by Kea Glenn, international student advisor and a 1st lieutenant in the Ohio Army National Guard, drew a good-sized audience. But the large, sleepy Malinois was clearly the center of everyone’s attention as they walked in.

“Gula and I were fortunate enough to finish our service together,” said Shoval Dorani, a junior majoring in criminal justice in the College of Arts and Sciences, referring to the dog. Dorani served in Israel — with Gula — as a commander of the Oketz Unit, the Israeli army’s canine special-forces unit. While it was easy to imagine the muscular dog as elite warrior, Gula nonetheless sprawled out on the carpet and napped most of the panel.

“As you can see, she is clearly retired,” said Dorani, giving Gula a reassuring pat.

Not all of the panel members were as comfortable transitioning to civilian life as Gula, however.

“Coming back to civilian life was hard for me,” said Yvette Tyson, a second-year law student in the Kline School of Law. Tyson served as an Army human intelligence collector (“But we all know that means interrogator,” Tyson said with sly smile) for eight years. She’s considering going back to the Army once she completes her degree and becoming part of the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG), which deals with military law and justice 

“What I miss is the comradery,” said Tyson. “That’s why I want to join JAG, because I don’t like the civilian world.” Tyson, who got her first detainee to drop his cover story at 19 — “I nearly jumped out of my skin!” — found that her goal-oriented attitude was not as accepted when she wasn’t working with people in uniform.

“People called me bossy,” Tyson said. “When I just wanted to get stuff done.”

Yvette Tyson in uniform
Yvette Tyson in uniform

Getting things done is something Colleen Farrell, a former captain in the Marine Corps who graduated in 2015 with an MS in biodiversity, Earth and environmental science from the College of Arts and Sciences, is familiar with. Farrell left air support control in order to volunteer for the Marine Corps Female Engagement Team (FET). While Farrell did acknowledge the importance of air support control, she joined the FET in order to get things done on a more personal level. 

“I feel I had a direct impact on the war, and I did help the people of Afghanistan, which I couldn’t do as an air support controller behind the wire,” Farrell said.

“The wire” refers to the perimeter fence of camp or base in a warzone. Inside the Wire is security and creature comforts — according to the panelists, the Air Force had a nail salon and Burger King on their base; Tyson proudly admitted to going to both. Going outside the wire meant great personal risk.

“The first time I went outside the wire...I will never forget that feeling.”

Farrell was one of the four plaintiffs in a suit that successfully ended Congress’s ban on women in combat. As a commander leading women into a war zone, Farrell was frequently frustrated at the lack of respect her soldiers were given, just because they were women. Getting recognition for bravery and skills of her team, as well as something as basic as proper medical treatment, was difficult.

All of the panelists had stories of being treated as though they didn’t belong in the military. Thea Burke, a former major in the Army’s Nurse Corps, shared a harrowing story of her early days as a cadet. A male sergeant gathered all the female cadets together and harangued them for 10 minutes about how they were taking up a spot for a man, and how he was going to make sure each and every one of them washed out.

“There was a female officer there, and I kept looking at her to say something,” Burke said. “I wanted her to tell him to stop.”

Shoval Dorani and Gula share a moment between patrols
Shoval Dorani and Gula share a moment between patrols

 That experience quickly became a touchstone in Burke’s military career. When she discovered a group of male cadets who were about to graduate hanging out in the female barracks in hope of catching some of the new recruits coming out of shower, Burke screamed at them until they left.

“I took that leadership training very seriously,” Burke said.

Amanda Hart also recalls being underestimated. Hart, who graduated with a BSN last year from the College of Nursing and Health Professions and is now pursuing her master’s, served in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard as an intelligence analyst. With the exception of the annual “War Fighter Excercise,” Hart’s training in intelligence often went underutilized, despite her skills.

 “When I went through my job training, there was a new computer system, and I was the only one who knew how to use it,” Hart said. “They would call me to all the different Intel units.”

That the Army didn’t realize how valuable the women in their ranks were came as no surprise to Tyson. “In Afghanistan, they needed women more than they thought. They were encountering women and children in these compounds who would not talk to men.”

Dorani became very accustomed to being an isolated female in the Israeli army. As a specialist in the Oketz Unit, her position required her to go where she was needed, often to bases staffed entirely of men. 

“Combat positions for females in the Israeli army are not very common,” Dorani said. “I always felt like ‘the girl.’ You walk into base, and everyone looks at you, and it’s clear that you’re the only woman they’ve seen in a long time.”

With the ban on women in combat officially lifted, similar circumstances in the American military are shaping up to be a thing of the past. The entire panel was excited about what the next generation of women soldiers will be capable of.

“A lot of students I’ve spoken to didn’t realize women weren’t allowed to be in combat,” Farrell said. “They believe women can do anything.”