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.