For A Black Woman In The Military, Harassment Was Its Own Battle

Sep 21, 2019

Inspired by her father's passion for military service, Denise Baken joined the Army in 1975 at age 24, looking to follow in his footsteps.

But the retired colonel didn't realize how closely her father's experience in the military mirrored her own until she faced challenges — both as a woman and an African American — over her 28 years of service.

"As a black man in the military in the 40s and 50s, my dad had suffered such abuse," Baken, 69, told her daughter and son last month, in a StoryCorps interview. "One time, he was called the N-word, and he got so mad at this officer, he slugged him. And he was the one brought up on charges, and he was reduced in rank."

But her father soldiered on, Baken said, "Because he loved the military. And it was because of him that I loved the military."

Like her father, Baken says she too faced racism, and the mental toll it took was only made worse by the sexism she also says she faced.

"The guys loved watching women walk away from them, and they would make their comments," she said. "So I made sure I wore a foundation garment so nothing moved. It was just the way we women handled it then."

She wanted to be a role model for younger women below her rank.

"I tried to be — for some of my young people coming up — their person that they could look to to see someone who led with integrity."

It wasn't always easy. There were times when the mental exhaustion from dealing with discrimination would leave her physically worn out. Baken remembered one interaction with an enlisted female officer in particular.

"I remember I was walking across a hall, and one woman came up on me and she said, 'You're stooping. Don't ever do that. We're very proud of you.' And that startled me, and I stood up straight and kept walking."

After that incident, Baken turned down an assignment that could have gotten her promoted from colonel to general. She was ready for a change.

"If I was beginning to stoop, somehow maybe they were winning and I didn't realize," she said. "And doggone it, no! I just didn't wanna do it anymore. I wanted out."

So, in 2003, Baken made the decision to move on. She retired from the military, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in biodefense from George Mason University. She now runs her own consulting firm, advising the Department of Defense.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Aisha Turner.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, recording and sharing the voices of service members and their families.

Denise Baken enlisted in the National Guard in 1975 - following in her father's military footsteps. At StoryCorps, the retired colonel told her children, Richard and Christian, just how closely her father's service mirrored her own.

DENISE BAKEN: As a black man in the military in the '40s and '50s, my dad had suffered such abuse. One time he was called the N-word, and he got so mad at this officer that he slugged him. And he was the one brought up on charges. And he was reduced in rank. But he stayed in because he loved the military. And it's because of him that I loved the military.

RICHARD YINGLING: Did you experience similar sorts of...

BAKEN: I did, but from the standpoint of being a woman. The guys loved watching women walk away from them, and they would make their comments. And so I made sure I wore a foundation garment so nothing moved. It was just the way we women handled it then.

I tried to be, for some of my young people coming up, their person that they could look to to see someone who led with integrity. But I just felt the weight of the difficulties, just over a long period. And I remember I was walking across a hall, and one woman came upon me. And she said you're stooping; don't ever do that. We're very proud of you. And that startled me. And I stood up straight and kept walking.

YINGLING: Can you talk about why you turned down the assignment that would have given you general?

BAKEN: I don't know that any assignment would have done that. All I know is if I was beginning to stoop, somehow, maybe they were winning and I didn't realize. And doggone it, no. I just didn't want to do it anymore. I wanted out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAKE OIL'S "JUNG GREEZY")

SIMON: Colonel Denise Baken, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2003 after 28 years of service. After the military, Denise earned her PhD in biodefense from George Mason University. She now runs her own consulting firm advising the Department of Defense. Her interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAKE OIL'S "JUNG GREEZY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.