This is a guest post by Rachael Bakaitis, who is a cadet in the Air Force ROTC program at BYU. As of right now, she will be the only woman commissioning from the BYU ROTC program in 2014. She will also be the first woman ever to graduate as a pilot select from BYU.
I have always had a strong testimony of the importance of service. As daughters of God, there are so many ways we can serve. I have always felt that if something in life is important to us, we should serve to promote or better that thing. We all have different abilities, but we should each serve where we are able. One thing that is really important to me is my country. I appreciate the security we feel, and often take for granted, in the United States. Having lived in another country for 18 months as an LDS missionary, I saw firsthand how it was to not be able to trust government, law enforcement, and military leaders. Although, as Americans, sometimes we complain about what leaders do, we are generally able to trust that our leaders are not corrupt and that they are genuinely trying to do what is good for the country. I highly value this, and I want to keep it this way. I feel I have a responsibility in keeping our country secure and contributing to our good leadership. I am mentally, emotionally, and physically able and healthy, and I know that I need to use the strength that God has given me. That is why I joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Brigham Young University. Because of the Air Force ROTC program, next year I will not only graduate with my bachelor’s degree from BYU, but I will also be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Air Force.
This is where I am now, but when I started going to school at BYU, I was not planning on being an officer in the military. As a high school student I always heard school counselors talk about after-high-school-options as “college, technical school, or the military.” I was on the “college track” in high school, my schedule filled with AP and upper level classes. The school counselors made military service sound like something that was for students who had disciplinary problems and needed to an opportunity to shape up, couldn’t handle the rigors of difficult classes, or couldn’t stay focused enough for school. From this outlook, military service was not an option for me. This, of course, is wrong. The US needs the best and brightest women and men to serve in our officer and enlisted corps, but unfortunately many have gotten the wrong idea.
Because of this, until my senior year in high school I had thought that military service and college were mutually exclusive. I changed this way of thinking when my dad suggested that I should look into the ROTC program. My dad had served six years in the Air Force reserve and so was more familiar with the programs the military had to offer than my school counselors. I did look into it. I learned that the ROTC is a program that prepares college students to become military officers. Officers make up the leadership in the military and the ROTC program consists of a couple classes a week focused on leadership skills that a college student takes every semester as he or she works towards any four year degree at a university. I also learned about the great scholarship options available to high school students planning on joining ROTC in college.
I considered the option and talked about it with my friends and family. My friends told me that the military was the last thing they could picture me doing. I was a quiet girl who enjoyed reading books, talking about philosophy, and playing the flute, not the GI Jane people pictured joining the military. Also, at this point, the military had been in Iraq for several years, and the American people had started to feel tired of war. My friends, a group of liberal high school students, not yet informed enough to make the connection that a controversial war does not mean we don’t still need good people to join our military, did not support the idea of me joining.
When I talked about the idea to my family, although my dad was supportive, my mom was not. My mom did not actually tell me not to join, but just brushed the idea off, deliberately not encouraging me. She was afraid of me dying during a deployment or being raped by a fellow service member, which are very legitimate fears. My biggest fear of the idea was how I would coordinate being a military officer and a mother. Getting married and being a mother someday was important to me, and I was not sure how I could make being a mother and a military officer work at the same time. So, in the end, I did not apply for an ROTC scholarship. I graduated from high school and started as a freshman at BYU, not telling anyone else that I had considered joining the military.
I never forgot that I had considered it though. Whenever a general authority gave an inspirational story about his time in the military, I always had a strong feeling that I should be serving too. Whenever I heard service members mentioned in prayers I felt that I had a responsibility to be there helping them. I had made a friend in the Army ROTC. I really respected his sacrifice and service, and I felt like it was something I also should be doing. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to be in the military.
After two years at BYU, I mentioned it to a roommate. She looked at me, a quiet LDS English major, and directly told me that she did not think I was military material. At this point in life, however, I was starting to learn to not care what other people thought. I had a strong desire to serve, and I knew that I needed to join the military as an officer. I started to research all my options and all the branches of the military. I decided that the Air Force ROTC was the best fit for me. So, the first day of my third fall semester at BYU, I walked into the Wells ROTC Building and filled out the paperwork to join. “Meet tomorrow morning, 0600, at the Smith Field House,” was all I was told, and that was the start of my journey to be an officer in the Air Force.
That morning, at 0600, I met in the Field House with all 200 something Air Force cadets who were participating in ROTC that year. I felt out of place as I looked around and saw myself in a sea of hundreds of men. “Why aren’t there women here?” I thought. The recruiting ads on TV always showed both men and women in the military. I had never been in a situation in my life where there weren’t other women.
Finally I saw one other female, a short, blonde cadet who came walking towards me. She introduced herself as a Cadet Lieutenant, meaning she was an upperclassman in the ROTC program. She seemed really excited that I was there. She explained that in general women make up 20% of the military, but for some reason at BYU only 5% of the cadets are women. She was excited that I would add to the pool. She explained that BYU had not had any women complete the Air Force ROTC program in many years because the 5% of women that do join usually end up quitting. She told me not to be one of the quitters. I don’t like quitting, but I explained that I was just testing the program out since cadets are allowed to participate for up to two years before signing any contracts. She was fine with that and made sure I knew that if I needed anything to make sure to talk to her. She became a mentor for me for the next few years before she graduated and went against the statistics by finishing the program and commissioning as a Force Support officer.
This Cadet Lieutenant was right. Out of the seven women that started with me, six of them have dropped out of the program by now. And that was the general expectation of me from the 200 something male cadets. “Most likely you will get married and not finish the program,” several cadets had commented. “So, what are you, a good LDS girl, doing here in the Air Force?” male cadets sincerely asked me several times during my first semester. They tried to be respectful about my decision, but it honestly had never occurred to them that LDS women could serve in the military. I don’t know why it was such a shocker. The church is very supportive of military service in general, and when you hear a general authority talk in conference they always use the term “men and women serving in the armed forced.” A couple cadets told me, “But, you know the bretheren say…” assuming that the church was against women being in the armed services, but the truth is “the bretheren” have never said anything against women serving in the military. In fact, the military affairs page of lds.org is currently soliciting female armed service members to send in their comments and experiences so the church can better their programs for women in the military. Some cadets also thought it was their duty to warn me, “That’s great you want to serve your country…but, just so you know, if you stay in the military you will NEVER get married. Men don’t think women in uniform are attractive.” One cadet even suggested that I drop the program and work towards a degree in elementary education.
Another cadet faced other problems. She was naturally gorgeous and male cadets, even cadets in leadership positions, talked behind her back about her looks and how they wished they could date her. When she did well at our month long summer training camp, I heard a cadet whisper to another, “They only let her through because she’s hot.”
It was a difficult environment to be a woman, but I continued to push forward. The majority of the women proved these men right and dropped out of the program, but a few stayed in and showed these men that women can be great military leaders. We decided to talk to the Air Force officers who worked at training us about the atmosphere we were dealing with. That was the smartest move we could make. The officers had not been completely aware of what was going on. Officers who work with the ROTC are all active duty military leaders who have worked many years in their respective career field but then decided to take a few years out of their career to train ROTC students. They all know how things should work in the Air Force, and they knew that the attitude these male cadets had was unacceptable. They told us to report every comment we heard as soon as possible, and they began pulling cadets who made such comments into their office giving them long, fierce talks, reprimanding them for their actions. These cadets were men who had the desire to be good, respectable leaders, but had grown up in sheltered environments where women took on more traditional roles. They didn’t understand why their actions were wrong. I learned that having a former Special Forces officer lecture a man one-on-one about the importance of women in the military can be just the cure for a bad case of sexist chauvinism.
After being in the ROTC program for a semester I decided to leave for eighteen months to serve an LDS mission. This was a good time for me to pray and think about what I wanted to do with my life when I got back. I had a strong feeling that I needed to stay in the military. I absolutely loved the training I got in the ROTC. I loved learning to be a leader. I loved how it challenged me. I loved the potential I was given to make a difference in our country’s security and wellbeing. I did not like the attitude I had to deal with from many of the male cadets, but I knew I couldn’t let them push me out. When I finished my mission I came back to the program.
Since my mission, I have noticed that the men have been very accepting of women in the ROTC program. The effort the officers had made to eradicate the unwelcoming environment I experienced during my first semester did make a big difference. The program, though, currently deals with a few of the same problems: we are well below average on the men to women ratio, and the majority of women who join drop out. I have worked the last few years to recruit and retain more women, but with little success. I was frustrated when I heard a father call the ROTC offices claiming he had received “personal revelation” that his daughter should not be in the military. I was angered when I saw a very good female cadet forced to quit because her parents threaten to cut off all financial help if she stay in ROTC.
I have invited many female officers to come and speak in order to help inspire BYU women. Most of the officers who have come to speak also happen to be mothers and have been able to coordinate both their military and family life just fine. I have tried to break down the illusion that a good mother cannot also be a military hero. Yet, many pressures still prevent these women from joining. Walking on campus in uniform, many BYU women regularly stop me to ask about what they can do to join. I hear the same thing over and over again: “I really want to join, but my parents aren’t really supportive. But still, what can I do to get started?” A few have found the guts to do what they feel is right and join the military, but most of these women who stop me never do.
As of right now, I will be the only woman commissioning from the BYU Air Force ROTC program in 2014. I am proud that I have been accepted into the Air Force pilot program. What could be more amazing than flying?! But I am sad that I may be the first BYU woman to ever graduate as a pilot select. Women have been allowed in the Air Force pilot training since 1976. It doesn’t make sense that more women from BYU haven’t taken this route.
The military needs women because they need diversity. Diversity means a larger pool of minds and opinions that will help the military think smarter and more creatively. I understand that the military isn’t for everyone. I know great women who had the desire to join but were disqualified for health reasons. I know women who have been interested in the military but made the choice not to join because of the high statistics of rape in the military. That is a very real statistic, and that is a personal choice that I respect. I know women who just aren’t interested in the military.
There are, however, many women who have never considered the military who would make great officers or enlisted personnel. These women would really enjoy the work and experiences in the military, but they never realized that it was an option. If you are one of those women, do a little research and look into the option. Remember, you can do things far above and beyond anything you can imagine. Don’t be discouraged because you aren’t the “GI Jane” type or because others don’t support your decision. Maybe your country needs you.
I am glad I found the ROTC program when I did, before it was too late to join, but I wish I would have understood more about it when I was in high school. I could have been graduated and into my career by now. I am very happy where I am now, though. The military gives me a strong sense of pride in myself and my country. I feel extremely confident about who I am and what I can become. I feel like I have also helped change a few of the stereotypes that are so prevalent at BYU. What if I would have stayed as just the normal English major at BYU? What would I have been doing now as a single woman with a bachelor’s in English? I know that through ROTC I have been given the keys to provide a higher level of service and leadership in order to make a difference for this country. And someday I will have children. Maybe I will have a daughter. I want her to know that she can do anything she puts her mind to. I do not want to be anything less than an example for her.
If you have any questions about the ROTC program at BYU, please contact me, Rachael Bakaitis, at firstname.lastname@example.org.