By Sara Moore

Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Late September 2001.

After weeks of training in the grueling Southern heat and humidity, I was completing the final major challenge of Army basic training—the field training exercise.

FTX, as we liked to call it, was the culmination of all our training and designed to test our proficiency at the skills we had learned so far, as well as our mental and physical endurance. Amid combat simulations, building our own camps and surprise attacks from the drill sergeants, we were demonstrating whether we had what it took to become soldiers.

Women Army recruits train side-by-side with their male counterparts. They tackle everything from learning how to don a gas mask properly to hand-to-hand combat. | Photo credit Army photo

In one of my clearest memories of that exercise, a fellow female soldier and I were crawling under concertina wire on an obstacle course. The drill sergeant monitoring the course came over, crouched down near the wire—and with a smirk—threw a canister of CS gas, or tear gas, directly at us. In a panic, I fumbled for my gas mask, which was caught on the wire, and inhaled those evil fumes before finally getting the mask on and getting out of the wire.

Naturally, much choking and coughing followed, and I couldn’t help but notice the drill sergeant thoroughly enjoying the show.

As I look back on that incident, and my training experience overall—especially in light of recent debates about a woman’s place in the military—I have to examine what role my gender played.

Admittedly, a drill sergeant deliberately targeting trainees and enjoying watching them squirm was not out of the ordinary and fit into the overall strategy of pushing us to our limits to see how we’d react. I think the issue lies in the way I felt about, and reacted to, incidents like these, colored by my life experiences and preconceptions about females. Even though I experienced the same training conditions and, for the most part, the same standards, I always felt a little more pressure to prove myself and avoid negative female stereotypes. However, training alongside the “boys” helped motivate me to overcome those challenges and made me feel like a part of the team, because we all had to band together to get through those weeks of pain, sweat and choking tear gas.

My enlistment in the Army was nothing out of the ordinary, as women have played supporting roles in the military for hundreds of years and have legally been part of the military since the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. We have served in all of America’s major wars, and as of 2011, made up about 14.5 percent of the active-duty force. However, the path to equal treatment in the military has been long and difficult for women. For many years, women were restricted to support and administrative roles and were expected to maintain their femininity and appearance. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Department of Defense started seriously evaluating the role of women in the military and opening up more opportunities. Since then, women have steadily gained ground. In 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to study the feasibility of opening all military jobs—including combat roles—to women by 2016.

Photo credit Army photo

Female recruits learn hand-to-hand combat during Army basic training.

Just as military policy has taken time to adapt to women serving, so has the overall attitude toward female service members. One place women feel that attitude acutely is during initial training, when they must deal with not only adapting to military life, but also bonding with their fellow service members, who may or may not agree with their inclusion in the military or know how to interact with them appropriately.

Patrick Jones, who spent part of his 28-year military career as a drill sergeant at the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, recalled the shifting attitude toward women in the military that he observed during his career. Jones, now the garrison public affairs officer at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, started his career in the infantry and remembers male soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia, hanging out the windows, cat-calling to the female soldiers who had just begun integrating into their units.

“Later on, as things were integrated, there was a lot of training that went on, letting people know what’s acceptable, what’s not, and even today, that has continued,” Jones said. “There are still classes, particularly with the new trainees, given on what’s permitted and what’s not. If you kind of watch it over time, you can see how things are changing.”

The heightened focus on appropriate behavior was the main difference Jones said he saw in training mixed-gender units as a drill sergeant as opposed to his own training in an all-male infantry unit. He and his fellow drill sergeants, he said, made sure all the trainees were held to the same standards and went through the same requirements, but they always had to be aware of the possible complications in mixed-gender units. Drill sergeants had to adhere to strict standards of conduct to ensure there was never an appearance of impropriety and also had to remove any temptations amongst recruits by keeping them out of potentially compromising situations, he said.

Jones’ reflections about the focus on propriety mirror my own experiences in initial training. Fraternization among recruits was strictly prohibited, and drill sergeants went so far as to forbid us from even looking at the members of the opposite sex when we were, for example, in line to get uniforms or chow. Similarly, drill sergeants were very careful with their own behavior, reminding us constantly, “I’m touching your equipment, not you,” and ensuring they never put themselves in a compromising situation. In my experience, this extra vigilance about their behavior toward females seemed to cause bitterness among some of the male recruits and drill sergeants, some of whom had infantry backgrounds or yearned for a return to the “good old days” of all-male military units. Jones agreed that male service members who have not spent time in mixed-gender units still sometimes do not understand the appropriate way to act or resent the extra requirements. However, he said, the future of the military is a mixed-gender one, so training will continue to change and be more inclusive of women.

Still in their civilian clothes, recruits line up at the USO in St. Louis, before boarding a bus that will take them to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. | Photo credit Army photo

“When you go out into your first unit, you’re going to be in a mixed-gender society, and we always profess [to] train like you fight,” he said. “So I think by starting with that, then it just reinforces it all the way through.”

Even with the environment of inclusion that the Defense Department has worked so hard to create, joining the Army as a female can still be a challenging prospect. Throughout training, I was very aware of society’s negative perceptions of females as weak and timid, so I worked harder to make sure I didn’t need any help in completing tasks or meeting standards. Even working to meet those standards posed a problem. Females have different requirements on the Army Physical Fitness Test, causing them to stand out from male recruits.

As Jones pointed out, these different standards are based on physiological differences between men and women.

I certainly don’t think I could have ever done the amount of push-ups my male counterparts did, but it contributed to the stigma I felt as a woman in what has historically been a boy’s club.

What surprised me about training, though, was how much of that stigma was really in my own mind and how welcoming most of the male recruits were to women. As far as bonding experiences go, long formation runs, forced ruck marches, endless weapons qualification courses and fear of the wrath of drill sergeants have a way of bringing people together. By the end of basic training, I felt a strong camaraderie with my fellow soldiers—male and female.

Training in a mixed-gender unit gave me confidence and helped me see myself as part of the Army as a whole. As the military moves toward even more gender inclusion, I foresee more and more women feeling that bond and contributing to the defense of our country, right alongside the boys.

– Former Army Sergeant Sara Moore separated from the Army in 2008. She currently works for the Defense Logistics Agency as a public affairs specialist.