In Death in Panama, Captain Suzanne Watkins is the colleague of protagonist Captain Robert E. Clark. Captain Watkins represents many women who served in the Army during the 1980s. To a certain extent, they were trailblazers. And, like many trailblazers, she was unprepared for the challenges she would face.
When Captain Clark was a cadet at West Point, there were no women there. That changed in July 1976, when 119 women were admitted to West Point as members of the Class of 1980. And, it wasn’t until October 1978 that the Women’s Army Corps was disestablished and all women in the Army were integrated into existing branches of the Army.
There were many career soldiers—many of whom I served with—who thought it was inappropriate to have women serve alongside men, even in roles that had nothing to do with combat service. Trailblazers like Captain Watkins were dumped into these sometimes hostile environments and expected to perform.
Worse yet, they faced a challenging environment. The Army emerged from the Vietnam War like a middle-aged man awaking after a raucous New Year’s Eve, determined to get back into shape—morally as well as physically. Physical fitness became extremely important in the Army. The Annual Physical Training Test went from a one-mile run to a two-mile run, and also included sit-ups and push-ups. Lunchtime on most installations looked like the Peachtree Road Race, except runners were running in all directions.
These challenges were especially difficult for women like Suzanne Watkins, who went straight from law school to the rigorous environment of the U.S. Army with minimal, if any, preparation. She not only had to learn the customs and courtesies of the service, she had to whip herself into shape almost overnight. Early in the story of Death in Panama, she complains that she had not had time to work out while she was in law school. It’s a fair comment. For men like Robert Clark, who were combat arms officers, each work day started with physical training. When Suzanne was finishing her part-time job or preparing to go to class, Captain Clark was leading his platoon in early morning PT. Consequently, it’s entirely understandable that Captain Watkins would be unable to keep up with her fellow officers on the early morning runs.
Things have gotten better.