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Women in Combat

25 Jan

Picture 017Women in Combat

Ya’ll knew I was gonna do this. After 27 years of service as a naval officer, and as a self-respecting blogger (most days), I have to do this.

I love the anecdotal story at the end of the above article in which the woman being interviewed spoke of finding a hidden insurgent and calling her male colleagues in to help her with the capture.

Thing is, my stories are anecdotal, too. When I came in, I went through Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida for my career path, although I was not going to be a pilot or a navigator. And there were three separate standards for women in that strenuous program: 1) we did not have to take the boxing block (our entertainment before we were allowed liberty was the “smokers” or boxing matches that our battalion would conduct against our sister battalion) 2) we did not have to scale the low wall on the obstacle course but just had to run up and tap it 3) we did not have to scale the high wall on the obstacle course but just had to run up and tap it. The first wall required a pull up with the upper arm muscles–it may have been eight feet tall. The second one required a pull up with a rope–it may have been twelve feet tall.

Various studies over the years confirmed the wisdom of the obstacle course exemptions. They showed how young women could ruin their shoulders for life by utilizing muscles in ways they were not equipped (or trained) to exercise them. In other words, we aren’t built the same as men and, if we are going to take on some of the same tasks, we need a long curve of prior physical training in that task before we take it on. Some women will never make it in those tasks. I am probably one of those women.

That said, I do applaud the opening of the combat door to women as inevitable. Some women are strong enough physically to handle all the same aspects of combat that men handle. Some women will handle those better than some men. C’est la vie.

I look back and smile as I remember some of the things I did in AOCS that I have never done before nor since. Kind of seems like someone else’s life in many ways. But I smile because I did them and no one can ever take that part away from me.

I parasailed behind a truck (because there were sharks in the bay that day so we could not do it behind a boat). I was lifted from the bay another day onto a helicopter (“remember, guys, let the lead hit the water before you touch it or you will be electrocuted with the charge the helicopter has built up!”). I went in the Helodunker which was a simulated helicopter cockpit, submerged upside down underwater in a pool. We were plunged into the pool, blindfolded and belted into our seats, rolled inverted, and then had to escape the cockpit after counting to ten once the machine stopped moving.

I learned to run like the wind, although I am the anti-athlete, so that the DI’s would not yell at me. I would say I tried to escape being singled out for DI attention, but as one of only four women in my class (two of the others dropped out as we went along; the third one was held back into the next class), it was impossible to avoid being singled out for extra PT. The best I could do was not be yelled at every moment of the entire training day!!!

The way I have always described it was that the DI’s seemed to really bend over backwards to get the women to drop the first six or seven weeks of the fourteen week program. But after that, I sensed a change. Although they still yelled at me, they did it with a sense of humor behind it. We never dared look DI’s in the eyes (it was against the rules), but if I had dared, I think I would have seen a glimmer of amusement there as they trashtalked me. By the end of the course, they would openly say humorous things when they were gigging us and not punish us for laughing a little bit under our breath.

I remember our beach run, near the end of our course, with Gunnery Sergeant Clark, USMC, leading the charge. He was about six foot six and had a huge stride. He ran that beach at around a seven minute mile for about three miles. And I, who have struggled in the best years of my youth since then to ever make an eight minute mile, kept up somehow. My male classmates were dropping out, crying and throwing up, and . . . I just didn’t want the hassle of him yelling at me so I gutted it out.

At the end, Gunney Clark turned to me in astonishment. “Gardner, you’re still with me?????”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant Clark, United States Marine Corps, I am still with you,” I gasped.

I swear, with my peripheral vision, I saw something that was almost a smile cross his face.

(Photographs are of:  1) Gunnery Sergeant Clark, of the famed beach run, with me 2) Gunnery Sergeant Walker, my class’s DI, doing the first salute ceremony with me after my commissioning)

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