Christine B. “Nickey” Knighton—who in 1980 became only the second African-American woman to complete military flight training, and was the army’s highest-ranked black female aviator at the time of her retirement from active duty in 2008—flew Black Hawk helicopters in the war zones of Bosnia, Somalia and Kuwait (during Desert Storm). The retired colonel, now living in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and son, Knighton, 55, is a leadership coach and senior consultant on organizational improvement to federal agencies. Knighton told More she considers the overturning of the “confusing” ban on women in combat “a great day for America,” one that sends an “awesome message to other nations in an area where we have fallen behind . . . The service and contributions of our women in service to our nation can no longer be denied.” Here, she talks about pay parity, sexual harassment and the biggest misconceptions about women in combat.
How did the ban on women in combat affect your career?
The lifting of this ban on women in combat has been over 70 years in the making, since the formation of the Women Auxiliary Corps (WAC) in 1941. Personally, I had to endure the constraints of the ban for the entire 29 ½ years of my military career until I retired from active duty in 2008. The service of women in combat roles was a series of peaks and valleys, small victories and defeats, as we operated within the guidelines and polices that prohibited women from serving openly in combat units and positions.
The policy was very confusing, both at headquarters and in operational commands. I had the honor of being selected to serve as the first woman to command a battalion/squadron-level combat arms unit in 1996. This was an Assault Aviation Command with the mission of transporting infantry soldiers into combat. The command consisted of men and women pilots, aircrew members and support personnel. In some regards, the lifting of the ban will officially honor the service of women that had already been taking place for decades.
What do you say to opponents of lifting the ban?
Not every woman or man is capable or qualified to serve in every combat position. Women will still have to meet the physical and mental qualifications required for the combat roles that they deserve to serve.
Does the ability to serve in these combat roles result in more pay parity with men?
Parity of pay is not an issue among uniformed personnel. The military is the one place where women and men serving at the same rank and grade receive equal pay. The issue of women in combat has never been about financial parity. However, the ability to serve in combat roles will increase the promotion potential of women in the armed services. With that comes the selection to serve at the highest ranks in the enlisted, warranted and commissioned officer ranks. For women who reach the general officer ranks, this opens up opportunity to serve in key leadership roles as Combatant Commanders, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Chief Officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
The statistics about rape and sexual harassment in the military are pretty staggering. How equal can women be on the front lines and elsewhere if they remain in danger of assault from fellow service members?
The numbers of sexual harassments, sexual assaults and rapes are indeed staggering. I was involved in the design of the initial sexual assault and prevention training almost 10 years ago. At that time we recognized that a successful awareness program would result in an increased number of incidents being reported. These incidents happen to both men and women, and men are the least likely to report these types of incidents. No service member, not one, man or woman, should ever have to operate in fear of a fellow service member….Now that we have gotten the reporting of these violations right, swift and proper punishment must follow suit. The statistics and metrics that now have to be monitored by the military, the media and the rest of America are the number of perpetrators brought to justice and convicted. Prosecution will be the most effective deterrent to these deplorable crimes. Only then will we see the number of incidents decrease.
What do you think is the biggest public misconception about women in the military and women in combat?
The biggest misconception is that women in combat will make men in combat vulnerable, that serving beside a woman in combat will somehow make an otherwise strong man weak. It has been my experience that soldiers will treat each other as equals and expect that each will pull their load. Soldiers with equal training and equal qualifications respect and acknowledge what the other soldier has accomplished to earn their rank, status and position. My first tentmate on my very first field exercise on active duty in the army was a guy named Glover. He was just Glover to me and I was just Knighton to him. Glover and Knighton, fellow officers, fellow soldiers, that’s all.
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer and columnist whose work has also appeared in More, the New York Times and Town & Country.
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