Megan P. Tatu, a good soldier

Armed ForcesAbusive BehaviorColleges and UniversitiesIraqUnrest, Conflicts and WarSeptember 11, 2001 AttacksCrime, Law and Justice

Soldier, Megan P. Tatu has your back. And just about anything else you might need. The two-star Army Reserve general has just taken charge of the 79th Sustainment Support Command, the modern iteration of an Army logistics branch that is a year older than the Declaration of Independence. The 79th is headquartered in Los Alamitos, not far from Tatu's Laguna Niguel home. Reservists are part-timers who, as Tatu says, give taxpayers 19% of the Army's strength for 4% of its budget. She's the highest-ranking woman commander in the reserves on the West Coast, at a moment when women in the military is a trending topic.

If you were posting your job description as a classified ad, how would it read?

Command and control of 20,000 Army Reserve sustainment soldiers in a 19-state area. Responsible for training, equipping and individual soldier readiness so that we are providing the enabling capacity to the Army whenever we're called on.

During the Cold War, you were the first woman in an air defense battalion in West Germany. The lieutenant you were replacing as a signal platoon leader wasn't exactly welcoming.

I put out my hand, and he didn't remove his hand from his pocket. [The captain with me] said, "Why don't you tell her about the platoon?" And he looks at me and goes, "Well, I got 15 men and one WAC." Just like that, this disgust with "WAC." The captain said, "They have disbanded the WACs." The lieutenant said, "Well, whatever — they all end up pregnant anyway."

I'm glad to say that was just a very narrow-minded individual. That was not the pervasive attitude.

In 2006 and 2007, you served at Joint Base Balad in Iraq.

I was commanding a corps support group. One battalion provided security for our logistics convoys. The other was a sustainment battalion [distributing supplies to troops]. Our sole function is to support the war fighter. We lost four soldiers in convoys, killed in separate IED incidents over that year. [She keeps a bracelet with their names on it near her desk.] I focus each and every day on their names.

The military is opening up combat positions to women. On paper, you were not in combat, but you were at risk.

The changes now are really informed by what's going on in modern combat.There isn't this forward edge [in a combat zone]. You've got an insurgency. Being in that camp in Iraq, being subjected to indirect fire attacks, absolutely we were at risk. In Germany, [when] we were seeing this low-flying strafing [drill], I thought, "I'm not behind lines." But we didn't view it then as being women in a combat environment. I still remember thinking, "I don't think I'll tell my mom and dad about that."

A principle of leadership in my training was never expect others to do what you wouldn't do yourself, so in Iraq I made a point of going out on a convoy with each of my companies a handful of times; they were going out every night.

Yours was not a military family; why did you join the Army?

When I was a junior in high school my dad suffered a brain aneurysm. Our world definitely turned upside down. There was certainly no money to help me with my education. I went to El Camino College and worked part time at the Broadway department store in Westchester. When I was transferring to UCLA, I contacted the ROTC department. I had to go to a six-week training course at Ft. Knox [in 1976]. My dad had [some] hesitation about a daughter of his going into the military. I came back and said, "Dad, I accomplished things I never would have imagined," and I felt really good about that.

I've always been a bit of a rule follower and I've liked order and discipline. The Army gives a young college graduate more responsibility than any equivalent in the civilian community. And without question did I come to appreciate what it means to wear the uniform, and the pride in the Stars and Stripes.

You left active duty to have a family and went into the part-time reserves, where you have been ever since.

I'd invested a lot and the military had invested a lot in me. When we had our first son in 1986, I wanted to be a full-time mom, but I also felt I had much more to give. Women make up 20 to 25% of the Army Reserve; I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that there's folks like me who want to continue to serve and in my case raise my family.

You were doing a year of training at the Army War College when 9/11 happened.

Personally and professionally, it was one of the most phenomenal years. Our three sons had never lived on a military post before. [When] 9/11 hit, the post was closed and traffic in and out, our sons' school buses, had to be [checked] with the mirrors underneath; they had armed MPs. About three months later, my fourth-grader's teacher called [and asked], "Is everything OK? I'm noticing little behavior changes." We had a talk. He just burst into tears and said, "I've been so afraid."

The townies [repeated what they'd] hear from their parents: "The war college is going to be hit next because it's got such a high concentration of officers." Those are the words he used with me: "There's such a high concentration of officers." Once we had it all out, he was fine.

But 9/11 sent you to Iraq. You were there when your second son graduated high school. You tried to watch by digital link.

At about 10 o'clock at night we saw a [test video] picture. I came back at 3 in the morning and they said, "We lost the video bridge." But I did listen to it. I could hear when his name was called.

It's come out that military women are sexually assaulted at twice the rate of civilian women. What do you make of that?

I'm certainly aware of the testimony.

As a colonel, I dealt with [it] and followed what the Army laid out for me: First and foremost, any victim of assault has access to care on the behavioral health front as well as the physical front. We took appropriate action; ensuring in this case that the [guilty] soldier was appropriately punished for the crime of assault. And it is a crime, pure and simple, and it eats at morale, it eats at good order and discipline, and it is not tolerated [under the rules].

Respect is a foundational Army value; if anyone is not adhering to military law or Army standards, then I'll take action.

You're now trying to curtail a rash of soldier suicides.

We are launching a comprehensive soldier and family campaign to give them tools, strategies, coping mechanisms to make them resilient. We deliver a message of life worth living, not focusing on the word "suicide," and reaching out, trying to get them resources.

How do you think the volunteer army is working?

The beauty of the voluntary army is just that, that you have individuals freely obligating themselves to support and defend the Constitution. The Army Reserve — we are citizen warriors. We are that connection from the Army to the civilian population.

Especially in a down economy, [the military] is a draw for a lot of young people. Post-9/11 you got those who felt that patriotic pride to serve, but when you have economic struggles, the military is a good resource for people.

Have attitudes toward the military changed since you enlisted in the 1970s?

When I was in ROTC at UCLA, we didn't wear our uniform for our military science classes during the week. The only time we had to get in uniform was once a quarter, and it was on a Saturday morning. That was a carry-over from the Vietnam era where it was not so respected. It went from that to the outreach I see now of civilians to our military. No matter where your political leanings may be, the realization is that the soldier, the Marine, the sailor — they're not deciding policy; they're defending the Constitution.

You felt that civilian connection when you left for Iraq.

The neighbors were all out, American flags on their houses. I was absolutely blown away. I ended up [driving] slowly and stopping and getting out and saying goodbye. On the radio was Michael Buble: "I want to go home."

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

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