Last week, I wrote about father and son recipients of the Medal of Honor. Almost immediately, I got email asking about women and the Medal—or about women in combat in general.
The first part of that question is easy. Only one woman, Mary Edwards Walker, has to date received the Medal for her service as a doctor during the Civil War. Unusual for her time, she was a practicing physician and surgeon before the war started, and immediately volunteered for service—without pay—with the Union Army. At Chickamauga, she crossed enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and was captured by the Confederacy. Held as a spy, she was imprisoned in the infamous Castle Thunder in Richmond—actually a former tobacco warehouse—until she was part of a prisoner exchange.
After the war, General Sherman recommended her for the Medal, which she received personally from President Andrew Johnson. For more than fifty years, she was the only woman to receive the Medal. In 1917, after Congress voted a pension for Medal recipients, the Army rewrote the rules for qualification and rescinded over 900 awards, including Dr. Walker’s and Buffalo Bill Cody’s. Though ordered to return her Medal, Dr. Walker—now a supporter of equal rights and a suffragette—continued to wear hers until her death, two years later. The tough old bird is pictured at right.
For a little over half a century, there were no female recipients. In 1977, President Carter reinstated the Medal for Dr. Walker. (Buffalo Bill got his back a decade later.) So, as of today, Dr. Walker is still the only woman to have ever received the Medal.
Perhaps that needs to change, so, of course, I have a suggested nomination.
During the American invasion of Iraq, the capture of Jessica Lynch became a media sensation. The press was fixated on the blond-haired Lynch and strangely quiet about the simultaneous capture of Private Shoshana Johnson, an African-American, and Private Lori Piestewa, a Native American. Piestewa would become the first Native American woman to die in combat. Most Americans remember the story of Jessica Lynch, but very few remember the two women who were captured along with her.
At the time of their capture, I was teaching military history at Enema U, and my phone rang constantly from reporters calling me to ask if Jessica Lynch was the first woman to serve in combat. Patiently, I gave long, detailed accounts of many from the long list of women who have served in combat throughout American history. And yet, each and every reporter ignored what I said, invented his own quotations, and produced reports that proved conclusively that a lunatic taught at the local university. (Truthfully, I was only one of many.)
Though I recounted the following story to every single reporter, not one printed it.
In 1989, the American military invaded Panama in order to oust General Manuel Noriega from power. Among the units taking part in the invasion was the 988th Military Police, under the command of Captain Linda Bray. While women were prevented by law, from serving in direct combat roles, they could serve in military police units, since such units were technically "non-combat".
The military invasion of Panama was chaotic and the distinctions between combat and non-combat roles were blurred. Only men were allowed to serve as fighter pilots, but women could pilot cargo planes and choppers that could be shot at (but which couldn’t defend themselves). Without defined front lines and with Panamanian Defense Forces scattered all around the capital, there were no real "non-combat" areas. An American officer had to be ready to defend himself and the troops he commanded at any moment. Under the circumstances, the traditional roles of the military police became identical to those of combat personnel.
On December 20, Captain Bray was ordered to lead a force of thirty military police—which included women—to take over the dog kennel of the Panamanian Defense Force. Although the site was supposedly abandoned, Captain Bray discovered that the kennel was heavily defended (perhaps serving as a cover for Panamanian Special Forces). When her unit was fired upon, Captain Bray ordered her troops to return fire.
In an infantry battle that lasted three hours, the action was eventually forced to an end when an American Humvee crashed through the locked metal gates of the kennel. Three Panamanian troops were killed, and a large cache of weapons and explosives was discovered at the erstwhile "kennel".
For the first time in history, a woman had led American soldiers in combat, achieving her objective without American casualties. The next day, her actions were praised at the White House. “It was heavily defended,” said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. “Gunshots were fired on both sides and American troops could have been killed.”
Unfortunately, this was the high point of her military career for Captain Bray. Almost immediately, politicians began citing Captain Bray's actions as justification for women's serving in combat. When Patricia Schroeder, Chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee, said the operation led by Captain Bray proved the ability of women in combat in the military, suddenly, the military's reports of the mission "changed".
The Pentagon said that the three dead Panamanian soldiers had been found “in the vicinity of the kennel.” The firefight had not lasted three hours, but only ten minutes, and while Captain Bray had been in charge of the forces, she had not been present at the battle, but had been safely back at her command post. Captain Bray was abruptly unavailable to meet with the press and none of the other female officers participating in the invasion was available, either.
Suddenly, the Army took steps to completely disassociate Captain Bray—and every other female officer—from any active role in the taking of Panama City.
Eventually, it was determined by reporters interviewing the soldiers present, that when the defending forces of the kennel fired on the military police, Captain Bray was, indeed, in her command post, but after ordering her troops to return fire, she made her way to the front lines, and it was she who drove the Humvee through the locked gate. The confrontation did last three hours, with the fierce firefight lasting over half an hour, and the defending forces eventually retreated into the trees out behind the kennel.
Captain Bray never received 8th Military Police Infantryman Badge, instead receiving the Army Commendation Medal for Valor—an award for non-combat service. Though it is still difficult to obtain the military records for Operation Just Cause, the Baltimore Sun reported that more Combat Infantry Badges were awarded to troops than had actually participated in the invasion. Though women accounted for roughly 4% of the American troops sent to Panama, none were awarded to women, none of whom were officially considered to have been in combat.
Note. When criticized for not awarding the CIB to women during Operation Just Cause, the Army responded that technically, the award cannot be considered for anyone not in the Infantry, regardless of whether they served in combat or not. When it was pointed out that numerous exceptions had been made to this rule, the Army made no reply, nor has it verified whether men not actually participating in the invasion received the award. The same regulations say the CIB cannot be given to anyone over the rank of Colonel, but that has been done, too.
Not only was Captain Bray not recognized for her leadership, she was subjected to an official investigation to determine whether her soldiers had intentionally destroyed Panamanian government property. Though cleared of the charges, Captain Bray decided to leave the Army, resigning her commission in 1991 and accepting a medical discharge related to training injuries.
Okay—maybe the actions of Linda Bray are not exactly the stuff of legends. Her actions in Panama may not quite match Audie Murphy's in France or Desmond Doss's at Hacksaw Ridge. But neither did the actions of Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines—he essentially received the Medal to honor the men he led. Could not the same be said for Captain Bray as a symbol for all the women who served, without recognition, for over two centuries?
The American military would not lift restrictions on female personnel serving in combat until January 23, 2013. No legal restrictions remain in force.