I froze my way through nine weeks of Boot Camp at Ft. Sill, OK when I was barely eighteen years old. The training section of the base went co-ed about halfway through my AIT course. We’d had three female Drill Sergeants in basic, and while they were for the most part convincingly tough, they were only women in the academic sense of the word. I remember thinking that if I ever woke up next to one of them, I’d run away to the nearest monastery and never speak again.
This was the U.S. Army Field Artillery Training Center. If you had an Artillery job, this was where you went to learn how to hit targets that were miles away with 155mm of molten, high-pitched whistling death. Or in my case, with a blanket of baseball-sized submunitions spread out over the space of a football field. Either way, it was a distinctly male speciality. Those cannons are loud, after all, and the ammunition is very, very heavy.
I happened to enlist during a time when the powers-that-be were switching everything up. I’ve never understood their reasoning, as it wasn’t made clear to us, or to the men training us. I just remember my Drill Sergeants (the men) being angry about it. While the presence of women at chow and in the training area was a welcome sight after three months, we were all painfully aware of how quickly the intensity dropped when we had to train alongside them. We ran slower, marched slower, and anything remotely combat-related ground to a halt.
The new standards they had to adhere to meant certain exercises were out. The ruck-sacks were lighter; the forced-marches shorter by several miles. The profanity and barking of orders was downsized and dumbed-down. Group and individual punishments went up, both because we made more mistakes given the shift in temperment and the cadre were consistently frustrated with the whole situation.
We were caught between being young guys happy to be around young women and wanting to tell them to ruck-up or shut up. We already knew that the experience we were getting was considerably less intense than it used to be. Adding the distraction of a sudden onslaught of new standards and forbidden language made for a very muddled and half-assed training environment. In short: we felt cheated. I remember feeling like I wasn’t measuring up to a time-honored standard because someone had yanked the challenge out from under me to make things easier for the ladies.
My first twelve-hour pass, I went to a movie and played a few games of pool with my friends. We arrived back at the barracks to a frenzied tell-all of how some of the guys had gone halves on a couple of hotel rooms with some of the girls. Two days later, we were exhanging all of our laundry and linens because some of the guys had caught a raging case of lobster-sized crabs. Remember, this was just in training, in a pretty structured environment. It was much worse down at Ft. Hood, where I would eventually be stationed. The soldiers I knew who’d done a year in South Korea used to say that marriage licenses weren’t valid over there. They weren’t exactly “valid” over here, either.
There’s no uniform or standard of behavior that supersedes human nature. If we can get around ideas like torture, “friendly-fire,” and the like, then there’s no sense in assuming that military discipline or a set of values will overcome the innate human desire to get laid, even in the most dangerous circumstances.
I know nothing of combat; my tenure ended before the present conflicts began. I had months of time in field, but it was in the safety of fenced training areas in central Texas and California, surrounded by blank ammunition and store-bought snacks. I rarely mention my time in the Army because as a soldier, I don’t compare to the people who’ve spent years deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I feel uniquely qualified to talk about this specifically because I didn’t go to combat.
Training in the field, we’d be awake two or three days at a time. At eighteen and in the best shape of my life, it kicked my ass. There’s nothing quite like trying to navigate a heavy track vehicle with night-vision goggles when you’re so sleep-deprived that you’re hallucinating nightmare versions of the Muppets coming out at you from the trees. I couldn’t do it now. I could barely do it then. I can’t imagine doing it in combat.
Ever dug a proper foxhole with the standard-issue entrenching tool? I have. It sucks. The e-tool is this miniature folding shovel that can double as a weapon if you’re ever unlucky enough to require it. You dig in the dirt where you are, and it’s either soft and yeilding or rocky and impossible. When you’re finished, if you have the energy left to stand or your hands will still close into fists, you didn’t do it right. But you have a handy little spot for cover and concealment, providing you don’t immediately have to move to another location, where you get to start digging all over again.
Ever carried a .50 caliber machine gun, it’s tripod, and ammunition up a half-mile hill?
Ever double as an ammuniton handler on a Paladin crew? Some of those rounds weigh upwards of ninety pounds. They’re smooth metal, without any corners to grip them, and dropping them is worse than crossing the streams. We did a live-fire exercise that lasted all night and into the next day, which meant I spent eighteen hours lifting and moving over 120 of those things, eventually thanking God that I picked a machine that could lift its’ own ammunition.
How about that point where the weight of your basic combat load really starts to sink into you, pulling your shoulders down and sending sadistic phantom drill-bits into your lower back? How about collapsed arches and seeing the skin of your feet come off with your socks at the end of a 25 mile road-march?
Hell, how about something simple, like the month-long live-fire where it rained for five days straight and every single article of clothing I’d packed got wet and stayed that way? Whether withering heat or blistering cold, I endured these things at an infinitely slower, easier pace and intensity than exists in combat.
My wife at the time was an MP, and she was relegated to the Armory because she wasn’t strong enough to mount the MK19 grenade launcher on her humvee.
One thing I haven’t seen touched upon in this debate is what my Drill Sergeants (the men, all of whom were Desert Storm veterans) liked to call “bloodlust.” The ability to zero in and kill another human being, should the need suddenly arise. In combat, if surviving is high on your list of priorities, you have to be able to do this without hesitation or judgement.
Nobody seems to question whether or not women innately possess this ability, or could be trained to develop it. I knew that driving a track around the woods and running fire mission drills was to condition us for the reality of killing people on a large scale. It wasn’t something we talked about, but we all knew that both the purpose of the machine and the tactics we were training with was to kill other people. Men with families and children. Men whose names and histories we would never know. We were trained to see them the same way we saw the pop-up targets on the firing range. I have to seriously doubt the average woman’s ability to get past their own humanity to such a degree.
Once upon a time, I could run two miles in thirteen minutes and do a hundred push-ups without stopping. While I don’t know what the hell happened to that part of my personality, I clearly remember being keenly aware of how much harder everything we were training to do would be under fire. I remember seriously doubting my ability to maintain in that situation. I wasn’t the best soldier by any means, but I believed in what I was doing and I took it very seriously. I knew what I was capable of, yet was very much aware of my limitations.
“Combat” nowadays may be very different than what we were training for thirteen years ago, but I still can’t get my head around why they think women belong anywhere near it. It’s not just a Boy’s Club, it’s a place where everything bad that can happen usually will. Sending women home with gunshot wounds and missing limbs and severe PTSD won’t prove anything. It’s setting fire to the houses on either side of the one that’s already burning, just to maintain a uniform appearance. It’s a completely pointless endeavor.