Debbie Miller intends to lead a few good men

SUSAN REIMER

September 30, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

It is September in Annapolis, and midshipmen are everywhere in their crisp uniforms. In sub shops, movie theaters, ice cream shops and even bars -- anywhere to escape the confinement and the pressures of The Yard, the grounds around the Naval Academy where every movement and every remark is judged by an uncompromising code of behavior.

With their short, short hair and their starched trousers and their "Yes, sir" manners, they give Annapolis an atmosphere far different from any other college town.

There are 4,155 midshipmen, and 512 of them, just about 12 percent, are women. And when you look into the faces of those young women -- devoid of makeup except for a hint of lipstick -- you wonder if this is what their mothers had in mind 17 or 18 years ago, when they dressed them up in hand-smocked dresses and Mary Janes.

One of those women is Midshipman 1st Class Debbie Miller of Stuarts Draft, Va., the baby of Nancy and Joseph Miller's four children. She will graduate in June, and she plans to choose a career in the Marine Corps.

"I want to go into the Marine Corps because it fits my personality," said Debbie as she prepared for her parents' weekend visit this month. "The smallness, the pride, the prestige. I don't want to fly planes, and I don't want to drive ships. I want to lead people."

If the Marines are looking for a few good people, Debbie Miller is certainly one of them. But they advertise for a few good men, and so you wonder how women like Debbie will fare when they sign up. And you wonder what Nancy Miller is feeling right now.

"It scares my mom," Debbie said. "It scares her bad. I could tell by her face. But she smiled and said, 'That's great.' She tries to be excited."

Nancy Miller was afraid, all right. And afraid to show it.

"Debbie asked me to come see her [paratrooper] jump for her airborne wings," said Nancy, an office manager for a rental company in Virginia. "I was afraid to go because I might cause a commotion. And then I was afraid not to go, because that might cause a commotion.

"After I saw the kind of training and instruction they put her through, there was no more fear."

Debbie Miller's mother has not gotten over all of the things about the Marine Corps that worry her -- and when you are a mother and your baby girl is joining the Marines there are bound to be a lot of them -- but one of her worries nags at her more than the others.

"It is a man's world," said Nancy Miller. "I have been concerned for her. She will have to prove herself over and over again."

Debbie said she knows there will be limits placed on her because of her sex.

"There will be restrictions on me in helping to fulfill the mission of the Marine Corps. I know that," she said. "But the restrictions are getting less and the opportunities are coming."

But she talks about those restrictions in very practical terms. It is not that women are inherently incapable of leadership. Privacy issues sometimes are a problem, that's all.

"A full-body tick search in the field takes 10 minutes. With me there, it is a big production," she said.

"It is not realistic," said Debbie. "And any woman who doesn't believe that should spend two weeks in the field."

It was that experience during field training this summer that convinced Debbie that women do not belong in combat roles in the field -- a conclusion that relieved another of her mother's worries.

"I would rather she not be there," said Nancy. "I was glad to hear her say that."

Debbie believes women Marines can be in the second wave to hit the beach -- setting up tents, lines of communication, supply lines.

"Females have a distinct and needed job in the Corps -- to support the people at the front. Without that, they can't fight. Because of my job, those guys can win."

Nancy Miller may not have anticipated this career choice for the baby in the family. ("She has had to lead us into this gradually," Nancy said.) But the daughter's enthusiasm has inspired in the mother more than pride or patriotism. It has inspired a confidence in Debbie's ability to succeed.

"Watching her grow up, she has always loved challenges," said Nancy Miller. "She has always made her own path. She knows what she wants.

"She must know it pretty well, because she has had to explain it to her mother."

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