As a college student during the Vietnam War, Claudia Kennedy asked a lecturer what young people could do about American soldiers dying. He looked around, then said: "You can live every day of your life in honor of their sacrifice."
In her memoir, Generally Speaking, Kennedy explains how those words came back to her many times as she rose through the military ranks to become an intelligence officer and the Army's first female three-star general.
Chapter One: A Soldier's Daughter
I was born into the Army.
My father, Cary A. Kennedy, was a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet in his senior year at the University of Tennessee at Nashville when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry and spent World War II in the European Theater of Operations. In 1946 he came home to Memphis, married my mother, Tommie Jean Haygood, and the young couple soon embarked-literally- on an Army career, taking a troopship to Germany.
As Daddy would later wryly tell us, he decided to stay in the Army because he was energetic enough to walk up stairs to a processing station on the second floor. When the war was over, offcers were given the choice of applying for a regular commission or mustering out. The line for immediate discharge, he said, formed on the first floor of an administration building, while there was another line of officers who wanted to stay in the service on the second floor. Daddy was a major. He liked the Army, but, given the option of remaining in the Infantry or selecting another branch, he chose the Transportation Corps.
I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1947. A year later, my father sent Mother and me home to Memphis because the Cold War seemed about to flare into open conflict. The Soviets had cut off Allied ground access to Berlin. The West responded with the Berlin Airlift. Although tensions remained high for eleven months, the Soviets eventually relented and opened the land corridor to the Allied sectors of Berlin. But the Iron Curtain now divided Europe.
My father was reassigned to Fort Eustis, Virginia, on the James River near Williamsburg, headquarters of the Transportation Corps. Over the coming years, we would repeatedly return to this post. That's where my brother, Andy, and my sisters, Nancy and Elizabeth, were born, between assignments that took the family back to Germany, to Japan, and later even to Israel, where my father served as an assistant Army attaché.
Both my parents were strong influences on my character. Obviously, my father, a career soldier, formed my model of a professional officer. But my mother, Jean, has also always been a strong individual. She taught me that a woman could have independent political and social opinions at a time when Father Knows Best was as much a national ethos as popular entertainment. Almost fifty years later, I clearly remember an afternoon when she first made me aware that women could hold independent views on important issues.
It was early fall 1952, and the presidential election race between Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower was heating up. I was skipping rope in the yard and came inside to find Mama ironing and watching the grainy black-and-white image on the large screen of our light oak television set. It was Mr. Stevenson giving a speech.
"Who are we for, Mama?" I asked.
"Well, we're for Stevenson," my mother said, nodding toward the man on the TV. "But don't tell your father."
This was exciting stuff for a kid of five. Mama was talking to me like a grown-up. Daddy was a politically conservative Army officer who would naturally vote for General Eisenhower. But Mama had independent political views, which were more liberal than my father's.
Both my parents, however, taught their children that their personal lives had to be disciplined, whatever individual social views they held. They also taught us to examine our own motives and not accept the opinions of others whole cloth. I can't think of a better preparation in childhood for the character of a future leader.
Like most Army children, I learned to make friends fast, not be surprised when we had to move after a year or two, and to endure the isolation of being the new kid when I was put into the middle of a strange class at a new school. And I also experienced some wonderful educational opportunities that civilians rarely had. As a second-grader at the Yoyogi School for military dependents in Tokyo in the mid-1950s, for example, I practiced the dances that all young Japanese girls were taught and even took a class in making traditional silk dolls. At the post school in Boeblingen, Germany, a few years later, I began to practice the polysyllabic mysteries of German.
When we went to Israel in 1962, Daddy was assigned to the embassy. I started tenth grade at Tabeetha School, run by the Church of Scotland. The curriculum was demanding, particularly the English and Latin courses, but I enjoyed the challenge because I had decided three years earlier that I wanted to be a doctor. I had reached that decision in an unusual way. When I was in seventh grade, there simply were not many professions open to women other than teaching and nursing. So I had decided I would be a nurse.
But one evening in Williamsburg, I had told Daddy of my ambition.
"Why not be a doctor?" he responded. I saw he was serious.
I chose my eighth-and ninth-grade courses, including algebra and Latin, based on that ambition. In Israel, I learned mammalian anatomy quite well by dissecting a dead rabbit. But, in the process, I also discovered that I had no further interest in becoming either a doctor or a nurse.
In 1964, we got news that my father, who had been promoted to full colonel, had been assigned to command the Brooklyn Army Terminal. We would live at nearby Fort Hamilton. I had become attached to my friends in Israel. I did not want to go to a third high school.
"I'll stay in Israel and finish my senior year," I told my father. I was eager to be independent, to be an adult. We were at dinner. That evening Father was tired but patient.
"You can't support yourself. You're sixteen."
"I'll get a job and pay board. There won't be any problem."
"You need a work permit, and you're not Jewish. It's not going to work, Claudia."
Naturally, I went home with the family. And I was unhappy that year. Fort Hamilton High was a civilian school near the post. The seismic shock waves of the 1960s counterculture hadn't hit yet, and the social scene was still frozen in a 1950s teenage time warp. Belonging to the right clique, whether it was centered on student government, sports, or neighborhoods, seemed a matter of dire importance.
With four children and an Army salary, my parents were saving every dime they had for our college education. The trendy pleated skirts from Neiman Marcus were out of the question. Nobody asked me to the prom. In fact, I didn't have a single date that last year of high school. For some girls, that would have been a tragedy. I decided to concentrate on my classes. And I read a lot for fun, mostly biography, which I'd enjoyed since grade school, then branched into Ayn Rand and Dostoyevsky.
We had already decided that I would attend my mother's alma mater, Southwestern at Memphis, a small co-ed liberal arts college founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1843. My mother's family had a long association with the school. Both aunts and one uncle had attended, and my grandfather had taught math and coached football there. Another advantage of attending Southwestern was I could live with one of my grand-mothers. Daddy had promised all the children four years of college, but after that, as he always reminded us, "You graduate from college in four years, get a job, pack your bags, and live on your own. You'll always be welcome home for brief, pleasant visits." His emphasis was on brief. That was the Army colonel speaking.
The start of my freshman year in August 1965 coincided with the true beginning of the "sixties," the social cataclysm that shook the Western world for the next decade. Even though Southwestern was a Southern campus where weekly chapel attendance was mandatory, it was viewed as liberal in comparison with the local state college. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and protests over dorm rules and fraternity and sorority culture became commonplace during my college years. But in Memphis, retaining its Old South civility, these events lacked the strident tone or violence found on larger, more radical campuses. And many of the students simply remained aloof, preferring traditional college pursuits and confining their probing of deeper issues such as the civil rights movement or the war in Vietnam to intellectual expression, rather than taking the debate to the streets.
Although I joined the Kappa Delta sorority, I was hardly a leader: My most memorable responsibility was keeping the Coke machine filled; somebody else even emptied the dimes and delivered them to the vendor. I eventually opted for a philosophy major because it was interesting and permitted the most electives. And my father was dubious: "Just exactly what kind of job do you plan to do with that degree, Claudia?" That was hard to answer, but I had come to enjoy acquiring and synthesizing diverse knowledge for its own sake, valuable traits for a future Army intelligence officer. My big treat each month was taking myself to McDonald's, where I could afford two out of three items: a small burger, small fries, or a small Coke.
I was not interested in marching in campus demonstrations or in going to rock concerts. But I was starting to consider what kind of job I would get to fill the years between graduation and the apparent inevitability of marriage and motherhood. Real estate came naturally to mind because my grandmother Kennedy had run her own office for years, and I would always remember coveting her shiny Burroughs adding machine when I was a little girl of five. And my godmother, Meredith Moorehead, had worked her whole life in an office. She had her own lovely apartment in Memphis that I can remember as one of the most sophisticated and appealing places I visited as a child. As I read Socrates and struggled through economics and French literature, I considered the possibility of my own independence after college, not the mounting tensions on campus.
My father's next assignment brought the war home to me, however. He went off to command the port of Saigon at the height of the American military buildup in Vietnam. And now the steadily mounting draft calls for the war meant that many of the boys who were my friends were forced to consider how to navigate among the competing demands of college, graduate school, and the draft. The antiwar protests became more vocal. Although I was personally troubled by our government's disregard of the public's legitimate concerns about Vietnam and South Vietnamese suppression of opposition groups, including Buddhist monks burning themselves alive on Saigon sidewalks, I did not believe national policy should be set by people's individual acts of civil disobedience during wartime. It was all well and good for college students enjoying their deferments to loudly debate the war. But the Iowa farm boy or inner-city black kid didn't have that option. They were over there in Vietnam. Just like my father. I felt they deserved our support, no matter what we thought of the war itself.
In the spring of my junior year, Southwestern hosted a seminar as part of the annual week-long Dilemma series on ethical issues in which a civilian speaker defended American policy in Vietnam. The lecture hall was packed with opponents to the war, students, faculty, and people from town. But the speaker handled himself well, even when the questions and audience responses to his answers got heated.
At the end of the program, as we stood outside the auditorium in an informal continuation of the discussion, I addressed him. "Despite all this controversy about the war, sir," I said, my voice a little uncertain, "there are Americans dying every day in Vietnam. What can we do about them?"
He looked around the lobby, then at me. "You can live every day of your life in honor of their sacrifice."
The people around me were silent. There were none of the groans or boos that had greeted his earlier statements. His words have stayed with me over three decades as a professional soldier, and have sustained me through the losses of a growing number of fellow soldiers.
A few weeks later, the postman found a copy of Cosmopolitan with a missing mailing label in his bag. He knew a college girl lived at my grandmother's house, so he put the magazine in the box. I read about the hot fashions and rather innocent dating advice, then happened to spot a full-page advertisement showing a photo of a dancing couple. They wore Army green uniforms. "Be an Intelligence Analyst," the caption read. The ad sought enlisted applicants for the Women's Army Corps. Intrigued, I sent in a postcard and received information about the WAC summer program for college juniors considering becoming officers after graduation. Suddenly I remembered the WACs I had seen near the gate of Fort Hamilton when I was on the way to high school. They had looked sharp and purposeful in their summer cord uniforms.
The WAC College Junior Program, I learned, was a four-week orientation held each summer at Fort McClellan, Alabama, for 150 college women between their junior and senior years. From this group, the WACs hoped to select about ninety potential officers who would be paid $200 a month as Army corporals during their senior college year, then be commissioned second lieutenants and return to Fort McClellan to begin the four-month Officer Basic Course the next summer. Once commissioned, they would have a minimum two-year service obligation. Looking at the brochures, I saw photos of women officers leading formations of WACs and doing staff work in offices. To a young person raised near Army posts, it seemed natural that women officers were the counterparts of their male colleagues: leaders. For the first time in my life, I recognized the possibility that I might enjoy being a leader.
But I was still just twenty years old, and I didn't want to take the plunge alone. So I approached one of my friends and a sorority sister in Kappa Delta, Marilyn Gates.
"What are you going to do this summer, Marilyn?"
"I guess I'll work at TG&Y," she said unenthusiastically, naming a local drugstore, "just like always."
I showed her the WAC College Junior Program brochure. "If you'll do it, I'll do it."
"I think that would be neat," she said. Now I was committed.
I had to obtain faculty references to complete my application. When I approached one of my science professors, he wasn't very receptive. "I don't approve of the military," he honestly admitted. "But I do believe it's important for women to work. Have you read Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique?"
"I've never even heard of her."
"I think you ought to read the book."
I did, and found it very courageous for Betty Friedan to say out loud what many thought but were unable to put into words, that it simply was not enough for a woman to devote her life to being a wife and a mother. Every argument she made was not only rational, but captured the sense of what is the essential struggle in our lives, the two competing demands of family and work. I grasped her viewpoint instinctively-as did countless millions of other young American women over the coming decades. We were not inherently less capable or ambitious than the boys and young men we had grown up with. But until Betty Friedan spoke out, women as a group were simply expected to truncate their lives due to their gender, not fulfill their individual talents or aspirations.
I did not join feminist demonstrations after reading The Feminine Mystique, but the book did open my eyes to much wider perspectives, and I was glad to discover a description for my political viewpoint.
Before I left for the College Junior Program that summer, my father offered advice on what would be expected of me in Army training. He had recently returned from Vietnam, and I think he was both proud of and puzzled by my decision to explore the Army. "Work as a team. Organize your time. Memorize your serial number," he said.
Marilyn Gates and I arrived at Fort McClellan in my 1962 Ford Fairlane on a steamy July afternoon. Our milling formation of college juniors was greeted by a no-nonsense contingent of steely-eyed WAC sergeants in sharply pressed Army green cord uniforms, skirts exactly one inch below the middle of the knee, nylon stockings despite the wilting heat, and highly polished black, low-heel shoes.
As the group was broken into platoon-size clumps, Marilyn and I were separated. "Don't say 'ma'am' to corporals or sergeants," I advised her. "Don't say much at all."
But my advice proved unnecessary. She too was a soldier's daughter. Her father had fought in the Philippines early in World War II and had survived the Bataan Death March and almost four years of brutal Japanese captivity as a prisoner of war. Yet meeting Mr. Gates, who was a soft-spoken family man, you never would have guessed his courage. Marilyn had obviously absorbed some of his resilience. She did much better that summer than I did.
I found some of the program, particularly the unbending discipline, to be rather tedious. We lived in cinder block enlisted barracks, three women to a partitioned space, each with her own dresser. Those dresser drawers had to be set up in exact order, with shorts and blouses folded a certain number of inches apart, toothbrush and toothpaste tube set in the identical positions as illustrated in the manual we were issued. And another requirement was the girdle display. Every woman had to have her girdle laid out in her drawer for daily inspection. At the time I weighed ninety-nine pounds, less than the skinny British model Twiggy, and I certainly did not wear a girdle. But my girdle was perfectly aligned in my drawer and that made my platoon leader happy.
A few of the homesick young women were miserable and cried for days. They experienced the shouted corrections of the drill instructors as personal insults. Obviously, these girls just were not Army material. After a week or so, senior officers took them aside for counseling, and later culled those from the program who failed to adjust to Army life.
We marched a lot that summer, to and from classes, to the mess hall, back to the barracks, and learned to keep in step. And we all learned the words to the WAC song, "Duty Is Calling You and Me," set to the tune of the "Colonel Bogey March."
Classes focused on military organization, customs, traditions, and skills such as map reading and first aid. We learned the proper way to address seniors, how to salute and to stand at attention in the heavy Alabama sun.
For me, the Army held no great mysteries; I'd been raised with an understanding of its values, its traditions, and its expectations of leaders and soldiers. I also understood the Army's structure. A platoon of thirty soldiers was led by a lieutenant. There were four platoons in a company, commanded by a captain, and four companies in a battalion, whose commander was a lieutenant colonel. Traditionally, three or four battalions formed a brigade, commanded by a full colonel. The next largest unit was the division, a formation of three or more brigades. Divisions were composed of Infantry or Armor with their own organic Artillery and Combat Engineer battalions. Combat support branches-Military Intelligence, Signal Corps, and combat service support branches Quartermaster Corps, Transportation Corps, Ordnance, and so on-all had units assigned to these divisions.
In the 1960s, the WAC's 10,000 enlisted women and 1,000 officers serving in the United States and overseas officially performed "essential" duties that freed up men for assignment to combat units, from which women were barred. That had been the purpose of women in the Army since World War II. In 1942, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, an early champion for women's equality, introduced a bill for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, a quasi-military group of volunteers who would fill noncombat Army jobs, mainly clerical and administrative, so that men could be assigned to fighting units. The WAAC was created on May 14, 1942, without official military status. Its members wore Army-style uniforms, but had their own enlisted and commissioned ranks and insignia, and were not governed by Army regulations or the Articles of War.
A year later there were 60,000 enlisted women and officers serving in the U.S. and overseas in a variety of assignments that included military administration, personnel processing, clerical work, vast and complex globe-spanning military post offices, and maintenance jobs in motor pools. WAAC officers were also in charge of huge military payrolls and ultrasensitive code rooms. For these positions, they were trained to use the Army Colt .45 caliber pistol, a fact that was not widely advertised during the war because the concept of armed women in uniform was anathema to many conservative members of Congress and traditional military leaders. I find this rather ironic, considering that Rosie the Riveter and other women defense workers had become collective national heroes by the second year of the war.
Despite the undeniable contribution the WAAC made, the deep-seated resistance to military women found expression in an ugly and persistent slander campaign that seemed to crop up at many posts. According to those spreading the slander, the women soldiers were disreputable. From the perspective of the late 1960s, I considered such an attitude, especially in wartime, as outrageously untrue as it was grossly unfair. But the history of the Women's Army Corps showed that the pervasive slander campaign that extended into 1944 had a definite negative effect on women volunteering for service.
Nevertheless, in 1943, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall requested that Congress convert the WAAC from auxiliary status to a full military branch of the Army. The Women's Army Corps was created that year. Enlisted WACs would now have military grades from private through master sergeant, and officers from second lieutenant through lieutenant colonel. The Director of the WAC would be a full colonel. The women of the Corps served under Army regulations and the Articles of War.
During World War II, WACs were assigned to all theaters of operations, from Europe to China, from Australia to the islands of the South Pacific. By the end of the war, over 140,000 women had volunteered for Army duty; some had been wounded in action, and a few decorated for courage under fire.
WACs were allowed to marry if they received proper authorization. But if a WAC serving in the European Theater of Operations married an American military man, one of them was immediately transferred to a distant station. The transfer was meant to discourage romances resulting in pregnancy. In the Far East, a WAC could not marry unless she was pregnant. Any WAC who became pregnant was expected to announce her condition and quickly be processed for discharge on grounds of medical disability.
Remarkably, these stringent conditions, first imposed at the height of World War II, still prevailed in the Women's Army Corps in 1968. A WAC could marry with permission, but not become pregnant and remain in the service.
Nevertheless, I began to think that a few years in the Army would be just the kind of experience I wanted. Still in my early twenties, I expected to be married and a mother eventually, as did many of my peers. But I found the familiar and straightforward military institutions, the comforting certainty of the Army's values, and the unabashed patriotism of such traditions as pausing each afternoon at Retreat to salute the flag as the color guard lowered it for the day, to be more inspiring than the 1960s world of dissidence and negativity. The Army took a lot of guesswork out of life.
And I didn't harbor illusions that the Army was a tranquil refuge. Toward the end of that month, we were bused over to Fort Benning, Georgia, to observe a live-fire exercise at the Infantry School. This famous "Mad Minute" reminded me that the purpose of the Army was fighting and winning battles, and to do so soldiers had to kill the enemy. As we sat in the bleachers behind the sandbagged model battalion defensive position, however, the effect of U.S. Army firepower was overwhelming.
Helmeted soldiers filed into the trenches before us to occupy the bunkers. They began firing with crackling .223 caliber M-16 rifles, first on semiautomatic, then on rippling full-automatic bursts. Then the heavier blast of 7.62mm M-60 machine guns firing slashing orange tracers toward the distant sand hills joined in. Suddenly the cacophony was pounded by the deeper roar of .50 caliber heavy machine guns from the bunkers. Soldiers fired 40mm grenades and 60mm mortars that exploded louder than any Fourth of July fireworks. All the while, the rifle and machine gun fire continued. Then 105mm howitzers cut loose behind us, and the shells ripped by overhead with a metallic groan. Their distant explosions sent out shock waves that struck us like invisible boxing gloves.
Around me the young women were silent, absorbed by the spectacle. I tried to picture what enemy soldiers would experience, advancing against such a heavily defended position. Then my mind shifted to American troops ordered to attack bunkers like these in Vietnam.
The WAC only gave us a few weeks to decide on the student officer program after we left Fort McClellan that summer. Flying into Southport, North Carolina, where my father now commanded the Army ammunition terminal, I was certainly attracted to the idea of becoming an Army officer, but still wasn't sure about accepting a two-year commitment.
And there were other, much deeper principles in weighing this decision. All around me young men were being required to fulfill their military obligations during wartime. I firmly believed that women were due the rights and opportunities of citizenship equal to men. And along with these equal rights came equal responsibilities, including military service. Personally, I considered it important for both men and women to accept the responsibility of military service. The obligations of citizenship should be without reference to gender, just as they are without reference to race.
As I considered whether to join the WAC, I weighed several factors: the length of the obligation after college, the symbolism of serving my country, and the practical advantage of having a record as an Army officer on my résumé. Before making my final decision, I consulted friends and family.
My brother, Andy, certainly had no qualms and gave me the decisive push: "Only two years? Do it."
In a way two years of service would show a kind of solidarity with the men who were drafted, even though I'd be an officer. Besides, the $200 a month the Army would pay me during my senior year would certainly help my parents a lot, as they had two other children in private college during my senior year. "Well," I told Andy, "I guess I will."
But when I discussed this decision with my father, he was quite thoughtful. "Are you sure you're interested in this, Claudia?"
My internal debate continued, but I became surer that applying for the student officer program would be a good idea.
"Yes, Daddy, I am."
I mailed my acceptance letter and called Marilyn. She too had decided to accept.
Back at school, Marilyn and I decided to keep our decision fairly private. We would not bring it up, but would tell anyone who asked. Antiwar sentiment had reached a high point. Now even the faculty at this Southern college were becoming strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam and to the Army. Several of the professors I needed for references harbored antimilitary feelings, but they honored my requests for their support. To any who persisted, I gave the oversimplified answer, "My father's in the Army," which seemed to satisfy them. Maybe it was a lost opportunity to persuade them, but I didn't feel like getting into long ethical debates about the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, knowing how entrenched the popular position against the war had become.
When my Army paycheck of $200 a month began, most went for tuition, but I could now make a monthly splurge at McDonald's, feasting on a small burger, small fries, and a small Coke.
Most of my friends did not know about my Army plans until just before graduation in June 1969. They were puzzled. The concept of women becoming Army officers at that time seemed utterly alien. I might just as well have announced plans to become an astronaut.
On June 2, at the local congressman's office, my father read the oath commissioning me a second lieutenant in the Women's Army Corps. I swore to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders of the President of the United States and of the officers appointed over me."
Copyright (c) 2001 by Claudia J. Kennedy
--From Generally Speaking: A Memoir by the First Woman Promoted to Three- Star General in the United States Army, by Claudia J. Kennedy, Malcolm McConnell (Contributor). © September 20, 2001 , Warner Books. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of www.TWBOOKMARK.com.