In February 1991, for economic reasons, I joined the Army for an eight-year term of service (two years plus training time on active duty; the remainder on inactive status) as a “63H” — track vehicle repairer. In August 1993, I wrapped my active-duty service with an honorable discharge from Fort Stewart, Ga. A few years later, I wrote an opinion piece for a local Georgia newspaper. The headline: “Why Most G.I. Janes Should Go Home.”
With the Pentagon’s push to let women serve in combat roles as a backdrop, here’s a recap of my military experience:
When I joined, Michael Dukakis was governor of my native state, the Massachusetts unemployment rate was sky-high, jobs were few and far between. The Army looked like a good deal for my student-loan debt, and with the right MOS — military occupational skill — selection, I could keep active-duty service to just two years — a definite selling point for those with something less that a complete love of discipline. Still, I wanted to succeed, so I started a fitness program that targeted my weak areas — pushups, long-distance running — before entering the service.
I needn’t have bothered.
There were about 10 of us female recruits who went through the military intake physical process in Boston together. The break-the-ice question, of course: Why are you joining? Top answer, given by at least half: to meet guys.
Not that my economic reasons were the most patriotic or honorable — but really? To meet men?
Moving on. … Basic training, Fort Dix, N.J. This is where I thought things would get tough — military tough. Running-miles-upon-miles tough, pushups-to-exhaustion tough. Nonstop physical and mental tests that stressed the body and mind. We already had been warned by our male drill sergeants about a 12-mile road march with full gear that was set for a month into training. The reality of basic?
I actually lost all the fitness gains I had made while training to enter the Army. Our daily physical fitness workouts were sporadic in terms of toughness; some days, our runs were about a mile — barely — as drill sergeants were forced to accommodate the weaker fitness level of an all-female company of varying ages and maturity levels. New military rules prohibited bare-handed pushups on the pavement; the drill sergeants also said females were no longer required to pass the obstacle course as a condition of basic training graduation because it was perceived as too difficult. Women didn’t have the upper-body strength to succeed, they said. We did visit the obstacle course — for stress-free play.
And that much-anticipated 12-mile road march?
We walked for about an hour, before the drill sergeants rounded up the stragglers — many of whom were in tears — and drove us all back to base in company trucks. A similar fate awaited our winter bivouac, a supposedly mandatory three-day campout to expose us to the rigors of Army life in the field. We abandoned camp halfway through. It was bitterly cold and female recruits from Southern states were in tears and threatening to quit.
That was just basic training. In the months to follow, here’s what I learned about women in the Army: We don’t have to carry our own tool boxes. We don’t have to do certain war-game training required of males. We don’t have to do as many pushups, or run as fast, as males. We don’t have to carry full-weight rucksacks on required long marches; rather, we can stuff them with pillows. We don’t have to stay in the field for longer than three days without a shower, in contrast to male soldiers, who didn’t have such shower requirements.
The military may have balanced out its male-female discrepancies in the years since I was discharged. But if not — my own experience leaves me wondering if the gender-neutral fighting force being pushed by the Pentagon and politicos is really fully prepped for battle.
(Cheryl K. Chumley is a writer for the Continuous News Desk)