Let’s play a game. I want you to picture a soldier. Let me guess what you’re picturing. It’s a guy between 5’10” and 6 feet, with a slim, muscular build and a high-and-tight. He carries himself with an air of quiet dignity. The person you’re picturing didn’t get scolded once for skipping in uniform, because he’s too proud for that. How close am I?
The point is, you aren’t picturing me. You aren’t picturing a girl who stands at 5’3” and weighs less than 115 pounds. You know, a woman in the Army. A female soldier.
Let’s be real, though. You can’t have one without the other. The smiling female private would have never become a sergeant if it weren’t for the guy who told her: “If I ever hear that you’ve been playing the female card as an excuse to not do something, I will hunt you down and smoke the dogshit out of you. You’re better than that. I would have never wasted my time on you if I didn’t believe that.”
She would never be this strong if another soldier in the gym hadn’t gotten right up in her face. “I’ve watched you get better and better every day. Now, get some fucking self-confidence, get up on that bar, and do your fucking pull-ups.”
The other day, I was talking to a buddy of mine. He told me how he’s lost motivation for his unit, how awful they are, and the various ways they’ve screwed him over. It made me realize how lucky I’ve been in my short military career so far. I have people who, from the very beginning have believed in me. They’ve watched me fuck up (every private fucks up), but then they’ve watched me pick myself up. They’ve been there to dust me off and to guide me. We may have gone our separate ways, but I know I can call them up with any problem, no matter how trivial, and they’ll give me advice, encouragement, and the much-needed slap upside the head.
All the way from the sergeant who pulled me aside, two months out of training, and told me, “If you keep up the way you are, you’ll get your E-5 in no time, and you’ll be good at it.” Up to the smiling MP I met in the gym, who, after months of not seeing each other, came up to me in the dining hall, slapped me on the shoulder with a big old grin, and said, “Congratulations, big sergeant,” and walked away before I could say anything.
The best part is their willingness to accept me as one of their own, to treat me like just another soldier, instead of like just a woman. They never think of me as a sexual object, but instead only as just myself. A person with feelings and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, just like them. Part of that is they spent a good deal of time denying that I’m a woman — until that time I was stuck at work and had to get one of them to bring me tampons.
Even after that, they never dwelled on the matter of my sex and that is a beautiful thing. The Army, by nature, draws lines between men and women. Part of that stems from old-timey American beliefs about gender roles, sure, but it still happens in the Army. The biggest difference is in the PT (physical training) test standards. For instance, a 23 year-old woman has to complete a two-mile run in 19:36 or less. A man of the same age must complete the same distance in 16:36 or less. The message that sends to young female soldiers is that they don’t have to try as hard, because less is expected of them than of their male counterparts. Mediocrity should never be accepted in our military, and yet is expected—maybe even encouraged — among our female soldiers.
I’ve been lucky because I was always expected to strive to be better. I went to the gym and worked out with the guys in my section, we ran together, we lifted together, we ate together, we worked together. It creates a bond that can be difficult to understand, and maybe that stems from some misconceived notion that men and women can’t be close to each other without some type of sexual feelings or tension.
It seems to me like every time the military is in the news, all it’s talking about is the rape problem and all the sex scandals perpetuated by the higher-ups. While that is a problem, let me be real with you for a minute. Sure, rape happens. It’s not as common as you’d think, though.
When I was overseas, I didn’t hear about a single sexual assault happening on my FOB. What I saw, everyday, was the men who accepted me as just another soldier, the ones who threatened to break a guy’s fingers for me when he said something offensive, the ones who never let me forget that I’m a soldier before I’m a woman — the tall guys with the high-and-tights and the quiet dignity (HA), laughing with a small woman because none of us can sing but that never stopped us from trying (especially if it’s ‘Miss Jackson’!). Those old commercials lied because it never was an army of one, at least not that I’ve seen. It’s always been an army of brothers and sisters, because there’s not always a lot of difference between the family you’re born into and the family you choose.