A humorous and unapologetically honest look into the Army from the female perspective.
Even on my last day, as I waited to sign the form releasing me from the military constraints I put on as a wide-eyed, snot-nosed college graduate, I was asked the question that plagued my entire seven years of service as a Military Police Officer: “So, was it hard being a woman in the military?”
The smacking of the woman’s lips, however, as she chewed on her gum was all I could hear. Clap, Clap, Clap. The sound was amplified in my brain with every chomp. I glared down at ol’ Ms. Chompy Face with a look that could cut through diamonds, but the middle-aged woman with fried blonde hair, whose name tag read in large gold letters: MS. WERLE, ADMIN, seemed oblivious to my scowl. When with my soldiers, words were often unnecessary to get the job done. A harsh glance was enough to convey my meaning without having to address the issue at hand- like the need to stop uncouthly chewing on gum like a llama chewing on hay.
Perhaps rejoining the civilian population would be harder than I thought, as I was unsure how to sensitively explain to the fiftyish Ms. Chompy Face that unless she was moonlighting as an acrobat and needed to practice these intense jaw exercises for her routine tonight where she would hold onto a metal ring with her teeth, there was no excuse to subject the entire room to her plebeian manners.
I spread some dust around in a circle on the floor with my boot. Anything for stimulation. Scanning the room, I could tell the organizational system was chaotic at best, if there was a system in place at all. The filing process appeared to be nothing more than stacking paper wherever there was an open surface. I inhaled stale air deeply through my nose. A slow, controlled exhale through my mouth. A breathing technique I learned to calm myself down from my platoon sergeant, Sergeant Gargantuan.
My platoon sergeant and I were the odd couple from the start.
Sergeant Gargantuan was mercurial, barrel-chested, and skilled in raconteur.
I was the size of his leg.
I chose to come out of the gate running – literally – the day I arrived at my first duty station, Fort Bragg. Having played soccer all throughout high school, I was a fairly good runner and decided to lead my platoon of forty-some-odd soldiers on a five mile morning jog. To my surprise, I almost immediately heard the heavy panting of the out-of-shape behind me, followed by the angry howling of a colossal hulking Viking who yelled with primal energy motivational insults like “Let’s go, weak sauce” and “This is what happens when you eat nothing but ice cream for dinner, you fatties!”
The bombardment of personal affronts made me smile as I kept running Forest Gump style, totally clueless that the formation was dissolving behind me like a sugar cube dropped into a glass of water. At mile three, Sergeant Gargantuan finally stopped me, but only to make the whole formation do pushups for not staying together (but the entire platoon knew the real reason for the pushups was because they embarrassed Sergeant G in front of his new female platoon leader).
With inapt gusto, I joined in on the impromptu exercise while Sergeant Gargantuan continued to hurl insults at the platoon- “You fairies are gonna keep doing pushups until your feeble little arms snap like matchsticks or you manage to push the earth off its axis and send us all spiraling towards the fucking sun!”
As time went on, we would eventually jump out of planes, toss hand grenades, and fire machine guns together. During our year-long deployment to Iraq, we were blasted by heat so hot during the summer months it felt like blow dryers were glued to our faces.
But that first run was the real test of our partnership.
While sitting in our office, our desks squeezed into a room the size of a modest walk-in closet, I asked Sergeant Gargantuan what happened. He didn’t understand the question. I tactfully told him that the girls on my old high school soccer team could have done that jog as a warm up.
Needless to say, Sergeant Gargantuan did not take kindly to that comparison.
That was the first time I saw Sergeant Gargantuan take a long, controlled breath– the first of many. He then sagely explained to me what the Army was really made of, and to my surprise, it was not powered by testosterone-fueled men wearing red bandanas, guzzling down protein shakes with one hand while shooting terrorists with the other like I thought it would be. It was filled with people who had the same misconception as me and who wanted to be those terrorist-assassinating, American-flag-waiving, vein-bulging cutthroats; only it would take nothing short of an act of god to whip them into that kind of shape.
He continued to explain that it was a profession where the disciplined thrived on relentless rigid order and camaraderie was ignited under hours of menial work and sudden bursts of high-octane adrenaline rushes.
A pat on the back, “Welcome to the Army.”
Through my own experience, I eventually came to find – delightfully so – that the Army was also a magnet for my kind- the rolling stones. A haven for the hopelessly aimless and financially misguided, turbulent outcasts with residual teen angst, snarky intellectual misfits who are morally ambiguous, pistol-loving rubes, and eccentric dreamers hoping to travel the world. Peppered in-between, of course, were the good-natured individuals who joined the military simply because it sounded cool.
Whatever the reason these individuals signed their names on the dotted line, however, it became patently evident early in my career that service members all have one thing in common- and it is obviously not that they are exceedingly good at physical fitness. It was that they wanted to be part of a close-knit family, one who knows where all the bodies are buried. And they wanted there to be a head of that family who could take charge, especially when times get tough. What people like Ms. Chompy Face didn’t understand, however, was that it didn’t matter if the leader of that family was a man or a woman- if the person in charge was the legitimate head of the family and they went darting into a burning ammunition factory, their soldiers would go darting in right behind them.
That’s why Ms. Chompy Face’s question was a silly one. An annoying one. There was an implicit belief people share when they asked this question- was it hard being a woman. The question was only a thinly veiled attempt to hide their antiquated assumptions about a female working in a male-dominated profession: that a woman in this type of profession would not be respected, but would be treated like a piece of meat being dangled over heads of starving lions locked in a cage.
Though, I have to admit that when I first started thinking about signing up for ROTC, the thought of being sexually harassed was a concern for me. Especially after I told my older brother that I was joining the Army, an organization he was already a part of. His response was something along the lines of- “Oh my god, you cannot join the military, you have no idea what it is going to be like when you go out for a training exercise and your soldiers all have on their field goggles.”
Being a college student, I quickly grasped the concept that “field goggles” was closely tied to “beer goggles”, so the comment had its intended effect and did in fact make me take a hard pause regarding my decision. But ultimately, I decided to follow the drumbeat call for adventure that I yearned for: the smell of gunpowder burned into my nostrils, the open air under my feet while swinging from a parachute, and the jolt of a clambering HMMWV.
‘Disappointed’ is the best way to describe ending my career without anyone trying to undermine me simply due to my gender. Disappointed because for seven years I carried around in my pocket this one line: “don’t make me embarrass you in public”. And here I am, about to sign my discharge packet, having never gotten to say it.
I honestly never experienced sexual harassment in my career. If I had to scrape the bottom of the harassment barrel, however, there was one time when a soldier who worked for me came into my office, sat down, and asked me if I liked to dance. When my only response was the same cold, dead fish eyes I was using to glare at Ms. Chompy Face, the soldier squirmed in his seat uncomfortably and then immediately left my office. That was about the closest I ever got to being sexually harassed.
Maybe I was lucky to be surrounded by a good crew throughout my career. Lucky to not have met the rotten, perverted apples who don’t just plague the military, but plague the progress of our society.
What really caught me off guard when I first joined the military didn’t have anything to do with my gender or those bad apples, but had everything to do with that mercenary lot the the Army attracts- and just how smart that lot was. Those pubescent teens who form the foundation of the military have tons of intellectual horsepower, and they will use every ounce of it to try and deceive the head of their new household. Since this vast majority just recently left the warm embrace of their mother’s bosom, and were only in the beginning stages of being pounded and molded into a fierce fighting machine, they relied on time-tested tricks from their childhood to stay under the radar and out of trouble.
Lucky for me, Sergeant Gargantuan had a particular talent for strong-arming those crafty adolescents, stopping them from freely running circles around me. Although, I’m pretty sure every once in awhile he would let one escape through the fence just for kicks.
“So, was it hard?” Ms. Chompy Face made eye contact with me this time when she repeated her question.
She pushed her black-rimmed glasses with thick, opaque lenses back up her nose as she waited for a response. I suppressed the urge to remove the glasses from the woman’s face and clean them with my shirt. Ms. Chompy Face tapped the pile of forms on her desk, aligning the sheets neatly together.
She didn’t release her grasp on the sheets.
She appeared to be holding my discharge packet hostage until I gave her an answer.
I consider for the first time, so close to being released from servitude, not answering the question like a politician. The reality was that being in the Army wasn’t difficult, it was: five percent fun; five percent heart-stopping, rampant mayhem that tested my resolve in ways no other profession could; ten percent attending safety briefs and mandatory training; forty percent following petty rules and inane policies that should have been chucked long ago; and forty percent herding cats.
But the reality was, even as an officer, I was just a drone. Another cog in the massive machine that was the Army. The most honest truth about my time in the military was that I wouldn’t be missed, I’d be replaced by the next cog on the assembly line. The hardest part about the military? Every soldier knows the answer to that- it is carving your way up the shrinking pyramid, only to inevitably slide off at one point or another.
But Ms. Chompy Face wasn’t asking if it was hard working in the military, she was asking if it was hard being a woman in the military.
So, I gave the best answer I could regarding that question.
“I firmly believe, Ma’am, that if I convinced every female on my high school soccer team to join the Army, we would have been an elite fighting force buried deep inside the ranks of the Special Forces somewhere and assigned to some cool unit with an unassuming name and a number in it.”
A curl of my lips cracked my stone face. Ms. Chompy Face stopped chewing her gum. Her pinched expression showed that she either didn’t like my response or didn’t understand it.
I took another stab at answering the question.
“None of the combat uniforms are designed for a female’s body. So, in uniform, I always look like I’m playing dress up on ‘bring your daughter to work day.’”
This answer made Ms. Chompy Face smile, she nodded her head in agreement, appearing to understand a woman’s plight to look professional, yet maintain her femininity at work. Ms. Chompy Face released the documents, laying the paperwork down on the desk. Freedom was in front of me. Too eager to be released from both the stuffy room and the bonds of military conformity, I didn’t bother to check the forms for errors before scribbling my name on the dotted line.