Women in the Army Part One

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.  

The Faces of Poverty

Before I moved to Panama in 1982, I thought I knew what poverty was.  I didn’t.  As recounted in Death in Panama and in other blogs on this Web site, the sights, sounds, and smells of Panama’s poverty were heartbreaking.  But I was only an observer from afar.  I understood very little about poverty until much later.

By 1997, I had left active duty in the Army and moved my family to an Atlanta suburb.  We went to a church where the parking lot was full of late-model cars, and the pews were full of freshly scrubbed and well-dressed worshippers.  One Sunday, the pastor made an announcement about a “mission” trip to Honduras.  As I was to learn later, the “mission” was one of assistance, not spreading the Gospel:  the people we helped in Honduras were already well aware of God’s word.  In fact, they knew it better than most of us who went on that mission trip.

That summer, a team of about fifteen men and women went to a small town near La Ceiba, Honduras, where we helped to rebuild a church that had been almost demolished by a storm.  Every day, we labored in the searing sun, building pews and putting a new roof on the structure.  We had to wear gloves when we worked on the roof, because the metal got too hot to touch.  We worked side-by-side the members of the church, most of whom were taking time away from jobs, thereby reducing their already meager incomes.  There was a language barrier, of course, but we worked through that with lots of smiles and what looked like a continuous game of Charades. 


That trip to Honduras was followed by four mission trips to Peru.  On the last two, I took my youngest daughter, who was fourteen years old during her first trip and fifteen on her last.  We visited an orphanage in Lima and travelled by bus over a two-lane, winding road up the Andes Mountains—over 15,000 feet—and down the other side to a little town called San Ramon.  Just as I had in Honduras, my daughter and I worked and worshipped with people who were struggling to survive.  

One morning, a tiny, elderly lady appeared at the worksite with a pitcher of orange juice that was almost half her size—her gift to her friends from North America.  She walked around and gave each of us a cupful.  We later learned that she lived in a shack with a dirt floor.  She had arisen before dawn and gone into the jungle to pick the oranges she used to make her gift.  The fresh juice was unbelievably good—a far cry from the pale substitute we normally get from a frozen can.  We concluded that it was more wonderful than any we’d ever had, because of the love that must have gone into it.  

I learned some valuable lessons during those trips to Honduras and Peru.  I learned that I’m extremely lucky to have been born where I was.  I now understand—in ways that are unforgettable—that the opportunities all of us take for granted are unknown to most of the world.  In addition, poverty is no longer an abstract concept for me.  It has a human face—many human faces.  My Bible bears inscriptions from Cinthya Bazán and Victor Ramirez and many other friends I will probably never see again.  But they touched my heart in ways that are difficult to describe.  They are people who—just like me—are trying to make their way in the world, although their paths are much tougher than mine.  


Life has shown me that sometimes people are poor because they’ve made bad choices or simply had bad luck.  Many other times—in places like Panama and Honduras and Peru—nothing they can do will change their circumstance.  If they are born into poverty, there is little chance they will escape it.  Nevertheless, they are human beings who love and laugh and hurt and cry.  And, they hope that somehow tomorrow will be a better day.

Panama Then and Now Part Two

For centuries, Panama’s poverty, and the oligarchy that perpetuated it, shaped the country’s culture.  For many people, hope never took root—never had a chance to blossom.  People born into poverty usually remained there, because the “system” was stacked against them.  Escape was virtually impossible, without using brute—and often illegal—force.  It is difficult for Americans to comprehend such desperation without seeing it first-hand, without smelling the fetid slums in which many of them are forced to live.

Back in the early ‘80s, I watched poor Panamanians toil away in the hot sun for a few dollars.  Back then, to be successful in Panama one needed connections—preferably bloodline connections—with the members of the elite families, who owned everything that was worth anything.  No legitimate business could be started without dealing with one or more them, none of whom were prepared to provide the benefits of their status without receiving exorbitant compensation in return.  That meant little profit for those who actually did the work and took the risks.  Consequently, the poor focused on making enough money to go from one day to the next.

Today, things are much better.  A recent study by the World Bank reported that from 2007 to 2012, Panama’s poverty (using the national poverty line) declined from roughly 40% to 26%, which was greater than the average decline in other Latin American and Caribbean countries that the study examined.  In addition, only Bolivia saw a greater improvement in income inequality—the gap between rich and poor.  Although the study found that many countries were experiencing growth in their middle class, the growth in Panama’s middle class was particularly pronounced.  The report concluded that these positive developments were the result of the completion of the transfer of the operation and ownership of the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama in 2000; the transformation of Panama into a logistics and trade hub, as well as a financial center; and important public investment projects, including the expansion of the Canal with a third set of locks, capable of handling much larger ships, and the construction of the Metro in Panama City.

Despite these improvements, Panama still has a long way to go.  It is my sincere wish that they remain on the path to a brighter future, so that Hope can, once and for all, take root.

Panama Then and Now Part One

Panama is a paradox.  It’s naturally beautiful, but scarred with ugly poverty.  It’s the Garden of Eden for some and Hell on Earth for others.  Its flowers and fauna are magnificent examples of God’s handiwork, and yet the shanties and crime of El Chorrillo and Boca la Caja are poignant reminders of what mankind often does with it.


I lived in Panama in the early ‘80s, before Operation Just Cause removed Panama’s dictator, General Manuel Noriega.  Although Noriega had been a longtime CIA asset and Washington ally, his increasing involvement with the Medellin Cartel and his brutal political tactics, including beatings, imprisonment, and murder, were too much for President George H. W. Bush, who ordered the invasion, which began on December 20, 1989.  Noriega was captured, tried for drug trafficking and related crimes, and imprisoned in Florida.  After completing his sentence, he was extradited to France, where he was found guilty of additional crimes and sent to prison again.  Later, the French extradited him to Panama, where he was convicted yet again—this time for human rights violations.  Today, at age 81, Noriega sits in a Panamanian prison.     

Fortunately, I had little contact with the darker side of Panama when I was there, although I did meet General Noriega at an official event.  I found that the sobriquet the Panamanian people had given him—Old Pineapple Face—was clearly justified.  There is no question that Noriega was horrible.  But to fully understand how and why he became the man he was, one must consider the socio-economic system in which he grew up.  More about that in the next post.