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June 7 2019

Elaine Donnelly

by Charlotte Hays

When it comes to taking verbal abuse, Elaine Donnelly, founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness, takes it in stride as an occupational hazard.  Doesn’t it hurt to be the target of name-calling?

The unflappable Elaine replies that all conservative women get hit with insults. More serious was a lawsuit, instigated and cheered on by feminist activists, which challenged her First Amendment rights to report the truth about double standards in naval aviation training back in the 1990s.   

It all started after Kara Hultgreen, one of the first two women trained to fly the F-14 Tomcat in combat, died trying to land on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on October 25, 1994.  An instructor who feared such a tragedy informed Donnelly, by then president of CMR, whose research skills are legendary, that Hultgreen was pushed through training too fast because the Navy was in a “race with the Air Force” to get women into tactical aviation. The pressure came from high-level officials trying to make amends for the 1991 Tailhook Scandal, which introduced the public to the problem of sexual assault and misconduct in the military.    

Friends say that part of what makes Donnelly tick is the grief she experiences when women die or are injured because of politically-correct policies that she believes have needlessly put both men and women at greater risk.

Shortly after a high-level Pentagon meeting in which she sought confirmation of the information, Donnelly published a detailed CMR Special Report revealing double standards that contributed to the death of Kara Hultgreen.  The report included training records indicating that Lt. Hultgreen’s difficulties probably could have been overcome with more time in training, but the second female Tomcat pilot was so ill-prepared that male pilots were afraid to fly with her. This triggered a lawsuit by the second female pilot, who was represented by a feminist lawyer, who claimed Donnelly had ruined her career.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case "with prejudice," but it dragged on with appeals for more than eight years before the Supreme Court finally threw it out. Donnelly had won, but at a great cost – more than a half million dollars for legal bills alone, which concerned naval aviators and Marines helped her to pay. 

When the lawsuit was dismissed, Donnelly called the experience a malicious example of “strategic litigation against public participation,” a SLAPP suit, intended to destroy CMR.  Donnelly had met Kara Hultgreen in San Diego a few months before her death, and she mourned her loss.  Friends say that part of what makes Donnelly tick is the grief she experiences when women die or are injured because of politically-correct policies that she believes have needlessly put both men and women at greater risk.   

A turning point in the debate over women’s role in combat—and which therefore was also pivotal for Donnelly -- was the Persian Gulf War. For the first time, the public saw large numbers of women and young mothers in combat gear going off to war.  Many considered what this might mean for their children and for the military members, male and female, themselves.

To find out, Congress established the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces shortly after the Gulf War.  Donnelly was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to serve on the presidential commission along with her friend and staunch ally, the late Kate O’Beirne, and top military brass and military sociologists.  In November 1992 the commission produced a fact-filled report that reflected numerous public hearings, surveys, and visits to military installations. Donnelly experienced supersonic flight in an F-15 Eagle followed by simulated capture and “torture” at an Air Force POW training camp.  The female POW issue and many others led Donnelly, O’Beirne, and three other commissioners to sign a section in the commission report setting forth “The Case Against Women in Combat.” Donnelly’s side prevailed with a narrow majority vote, but Bill Clinton was elected president on the same day. At the time, there was no organization concentrating on the many issues considered by the presidential commission, so Donnelly founded the Center for Military Readiness as an independent, non-profit public policy organization. In her view, the best qualities of military culture are under attack from civilians who do not understand the purpose of this culture.

As stated on its website, CMR has a “unique mission: reporting on and analyzing military/social issues.” CMR “takes the lead in defending elements of military culture that are essential for morale and readiness in the All-Volunteer Force.” Her opposition to accommodating people who identify as transgender in the military riles some, but Elaine does not waver on issues she believes make military life more difficult or more dangerous.    

“Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers to survive,” Donnelly tells IWF. “You cannot have Infantry units operating in a combat zone and attacking the enemy without having (a certain level of) physical capabilities. UPS trucks don’t bring in heavy equipment weighing 80-100 pounds or more.”

“When you hear rhetoric about the so-called civilian- military gap, it means trying to make the military more like the civilian world,” Donnelly says. “And that would be a mistake.  Because the military defends the country, it has to have a different set of rules.  We can’t treat it like any other equal-opportunity employer.”

Elaine is always immaculately turned out—she’s a pearls girl and likes bright suits or dresses with a feminine cut. She is a prolific writer of articles and policy analyses that are recording the history of social change in the military over three decades.   She does not lose her composure under fire, to the extent that some have called her stoic. What are the sources of her strength?

“I am the second of six children in the Chenevert family of Lincoln Park, Michigan,” Elaine says. “My parents were founding members of Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Lincoln Park, a suburb of Detroit.  My Dad, Basil Chenevert, served on the submarine USS Menhaden toward the end of WWII and he earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Detroit Institute of Technology after the war.  He had a successful career as a mechanical engineer and supervisor at Ford Motor Company.  My mother, Shirley, was a full-time Mom and an active volunteer at the church.  She also was a good writer, responsible for a regular column in the church weekly ‘Vigil’ and some special projects as well.”

“Both of my parents did extraordinary things for us that we appreciated even more in our adult years,” she continues. “Don’t get me started – I might tell you how my Dad invented the first family camper for camping trips to Sleeper State Park on the thumb of Michigan.  (He cut the aluminum siding and sewed the canvas himself).  He also used to order a truckload of red sand to dump in our large backyard every year so all the kids in the neighborhood could play ‘King (or Queen) of the Castle.’  Dad built two additions to grow the house and created a small ice rink in the half-lot next to the house so we could go ice-skating with lights after dark.”

Basil Chenevert was diagnosed with ALS, but he invented many devices to prolong a good life.  Despite his paralysis, “Amazin’ Baz” continued to sail his beloved sailboat “Second Wind,” and he described how he did everything in a booklet called “Taking the Hopelessness Out of Helplessness.”

“Mom was always sewing dresses for me and my sisters,” Elaine recalls. “She had a way with flowers (in the garden and at a flower shop) and she took on City Hall when they cut down all the green trees that used to be in the center of Fort Street in Lincoln Park.  It was a great childhood and we never wanted for anything.” The late Shirley Chenevert had a favorite saying: “Parents give to their children two things.  One is roots; the other is wings.” It seems to have worked.

 As much as Elaine admired her parents, she did something that originally gave them heartburn: resolve to marry at the age of nineteen to a young man who was almost four years older than she.  Terry Donnelly was a senior and she a freshman at Holy Redeemer Catholic High School, but during high school, they didn’t notice each other. The year after he graduated, mutual friends Introduced them. On her 16th birthday, Terry sent Elaine a dozen long-stemmed red roses. That did it.

Marrying three years later was the right thing to do, she says, because “I always knew we weren’t going to break up and we celebrated our 53rd wedding anniversary in January.  Marrying young is underrated, as long as you marry the right person,” Elaine says. They wed in 1966 and raised two daughters. Terry originally worked as a manager in the Information Technology field but today he and Elaine collaborate on CMR.  He is a talented editor, and Elaine, not suffering from male dominance, regularly consults with retired generals, admirals, active-duty military men and women, and experts in various fields.

Elaine had grown up in a non-political family—her parents voted for both parties—but, when she read about the Equal Rights Amendment, she heard that it would lead ultimately to her daughters being required to register with Selective Service and be subject to the draft.  After confirming this was true during a meeting with her Congresswoman, ERA sponsor Martha Griffiths, Elaine saw Phyllis Schlafly on TV. She wrote Schlafly, who is widely credited with having defeated the ERA, and Schlafly invited her to attend the first of many annual conferences.  Among other things, Elaine became an expert on using the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine to ensure that conservative women were able to get fair time on TV.

As much as Elaine admired her parents, she did something that originally gave them heartburn: resolve to marry at the age of nineteen to a young man who was almost four years older than she.  “Marrying young is underrated, as long as you marry the right person,” Elaine says after 53 years of marriage to Terry Donnelly.

In 1980, Donnelly became active in Republican politics in Michigan, serving as a Reagan delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention. In 1984, she was appointed to the DACOWITS – Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. It was her introduction to the issue of women in the military.

Since finding her mission in the 1990s, Donnelly has been fighting what at times seems like a rearguard action. In 1994, the Defense Department adopted many of the commission’s recommendations regarding women in combat.  The Obama Administration, however, started to change priorities in 2011, when the Military Leadership Diversity Commission called for “gender diversity” in direct ground combat units such as the infantry. In December 2015, Obama Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ignored a request for exceptions from the Marine Corps and opened all positions to women in the military—including direct ground (infantry) combat units that attack the enemy with deliberate offensive action.  

For Elaine, of course, the strategic imperative is not diversity but military readiness to defend the United States in battle. She believes the military culture is being subverted by trendy sociological theories. “Sound personnel policies should be based on empirical evidence,” the CMR website states, “derived from actual experience, not sociological theories and misguided goals such as ‘diversity’ as a ’strategic imperative’ in our military.” In 2014 and 2015, CMR published detailed Special Reports citing data produced during three-years of empirical studies and field exercises that the Marines conducted to assess the physical capabilities of military women in tasks simulating direct ground combat.  “This experience,” she notes, “goes beyond being ‘in harm’s way,’ where women have served with unquestioned courage.”

The Marine study tried to prove that all-male and gender-mixed combat units could perform equally well. Instead, field exercises found that women did not have physical capabilities comparable to those of men, and all-male units outperformed gender-mixed teams 69 percent of the time. Most concerning, women were deficient in upper body strength, essential to survival in combat situations. Elaine’s analysis is considered a classic example of her ability to analyze and clarify.

 “Women do not have an equal opportunity to survive or to help fellow soldiers to survive,” Donnelly tells IWF. “Research showed that even marksmanship was affected when fatigue crept in at the end of a long march: women just were not able to shoot as well as they would without that fatigue.  But you cannot have Infantry units operating in a combat zone and attacking the enemy without having these physical capabilities. UPS trucks don’t bring in heavy equipment weighing 80-100 pounds or more. Soldiers have to march carrying it on their backs.

“What policy makers are doing here is creating problems that men and women in the military don’t need,” she continues. “Part of the reason I formed the Center for Military Readiness is I don’t want to see policies put in place that make military life more difficult and more dangerous. You’ll notice in my writings that I am not critical of the men and women who serve. I admire and respect them—my criticisms, my questions are always aimed at the policy makers.  They are the ones who put diversity ahead of combat lethality.”

“When you hear rhetoric about the so-called civilian- military gap, it means trying to make the military more like the civilian world,” Donnelly says. “And that would be a mistake.  Because the military defends the country, it has to have a different set of rules.  We can’t treat it like any other equal-opportunity employer.”

Donnelly says that public opinions about women in combat have changed dramatically since she served on that pivotal presidential commission in 1992. “I fear that the nation has become desensitized to the vision of women being in direct ground combat in unprecedented numbers,” she says. “On the commission, Kate O’Beirne raised a key cultural issue that she crystalized in a simple phrase: ‘Good men protect and defend women.’ The commission considered whether orders assigning minimally-qualified women to close combat on the same involuntary basis as men was a step forward or backwards for civilization.   There are a lot of anomalies – consider the issues of sexual assault and the dreadful numbers that keep going up and up.  Violence against women still troubles the nation, but it’s curious how that concern doesn’t apply when we are talking about violence against women at the hands of the enemy.”

Donnelly opposes women registering for Selective Service, which would slow mobilization at the worst possible time, and also opposes proposals to commandeer the lives of all young people for mandatory national service.   

Elaine Donnelly knows those who disagree with her have gained ground on a number of issues, but she remains committed. “We only have one military,” she says, “and I don’t believe the American people will stand for it being weakened due to social experiments and burdens that make military life more difficult and more dangerous.  President Trump has begun to restore sound priorities and that will continue should he be re-elected.  If not, I will continue to record the social elements of military history and try to nudge the pendulum back in the right direction.”

And she will do this with data, courage, and poise, hallmarks of Elaine Donnelly’s brand of activism.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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