A woman among men: Female pilot details 31-year Army career

Waterford — When Denise Howard attended basic training in 1982, just four years after the integration of women into the Army, she was taught how to apply makeup, how to stand and how to fix her hair. Her male counterparts, on the other hand, went through combat training.

Howard went on to serve for 31 years in the Army, a journey she outlined to a crowd of women Wednesday afternoon at the Great Neck Country Club as part of a lecture hosted by the Southeastern Connecticut Women's Network.

Throughout her career, she was among a small number of women in a profession dominated by men. She was one of only two females in her class at Army Flight School in Fort Rucker, Ala., in 1986 — a situation that was "pretty common throughout my whole career," she said.

She encountered a "good ol' boys club" mentality — the senior instructor at flight school, for example, "didn't like anyone who didn't look like him, and he made that very clear." During her time as a female pilot in the California National Guard, when she took off her helmet, she'd get reactions such as "It's a girl" and "They actually let you touch the controls?"

But there were male colleagues who were supportive and didn't pay attention to the fact that she was a woman. She took the approach of "being one of the boys." If they were joking around, she'd "give it right back to them and not get offended."

"When I could do that and match them, then they accepted me as one of the guys," she said.

After flight school, Howard was assigned to the Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot in Groton, now known as the Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group. At the time, the National Guard unit wasn't doing tactical training, which she was supposed to undergo after graduating flight school. So, she trained with a combat support helicopter unit out of Hartford. She couldn't be assigned to the unit because of its combat status.

Howard, 54, of Lisbon retired in 2013, the same year the Pentagon lifted its ban on women serving in front-line combat roles. She said she supports the idea of women being subject to the draft, an issue that's been debated since the ban was lifted.

"If a man has to give his life, then why shouldn't a woman?" she said. "If we want equality, then we have to go all the way for equality."

Today, women make up 16 percent of the enlisted forces and 18 percent of the officer corps.

Before the ban was lifted, women already were serving in combat units, just not in combat-specific jobs, Howard said. She deployed twice to Iraq — first in 2003 as a staff officer with a special forces group, and again in 2006, as a logistics officer and pilot with a unit that flew between air bases in Iraq.

She closed with this thought about women in combat roles: "Everything takes time. Probably 20, maybe 50 years from now, it won't be a big deal."

j.bergman@theday.com

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