What Women Should Know Before Joining the Army
Life as a Female Soldier in Pre-Basic
Before I joined the United States Army, I pored through the internet looking for any kind of information that could help me. I wanted so badly to know what it was like to be in the Army. I knew what it was like for the soldiers I'd already met, but none of them were females like me. Let's face it: There is a difference between males and females in the military, and I wanted to know that difference. Unfortunately I never found any helpful information, so I up and joined the U.S. Army and experienced it myself. Hopefully this piece will be of help to other women considering joining the Army.
The boot camp experience is also known as:
- Basic Combat Training, or BCT (the Army loves its acronyms)
- Basic Training
What to Do/Know Before Joining the Army:
1. Consider Cutting Your Hair
Decide if your hair is going to work for you while you're at Boot Camp.
My hair was long, and I wasn't about to fix my hair up in a bun every day. With the intense training, I would have to fix my hair all of the time, especially because drill sergeants are sticklers about soldier representation.
A soldier also told me that some of the female soldiers he knew got moldy hair. When I started training, I could see how that was possible. The females who didn't cut their hair always had to have it up in a bun. As soon as they were done with showers, they'd basically have to throw their hair back into a bun. Sometimes there wasn't much time to take showers, so then the drill sergeants were thoughtful enough to take us training in the rain. After training in the mud, we would all go camping—again, in the rain. Under those conditions, it'd be easy for a bit of mold to cultivate in a knot of hair.
One of my first preparations for BCT was chopping off all of my hair!
I was amazed by how many people were mad at me for shearing off my "crowning glory."
In the end, it was a very good thing that I cut my hair, though it made me sad to lose whatever cuteness my long hair gave me.
2. Exercise Before You Join
This is very important! Training is very tough if you do not have some level of physical fitness when you arrive. You don't need to be Superwoman or anything, but give your muscles a bit of training so the shock factor won't be so high.
Basic Training is, on all levels, a rather high-stress affair, so be ready for it. There are physical ability standards that you must pass in order to graduate Basic Training. The Army's Physical Training Test is different than those of the other military branches. The test examines the soldier's ability to do push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run, in that order. The push-ups and sit-ups are each under a time limit of two minutes. The pass/fail standards are based on age and gender.
You can see what the pass/fail standards are for your age and gender under APFT standards on the US Army Basic site. For example, how many pushups must I do in order to pass? Well, I'm a female between 22 and 26 years of age. Therefore, I must do 17 pushups in order to get a minimum passing score of 60%. If that seems too easy, then go for a score of 100% by doing 46 pushups or more. Still too easy? Max out the guys' standards. Go for 75 pushups.
3. Ask Questions and Gain Answers
Find someone in the Army branch you are interested in who has no monetary interest in what you decide. I don't care what the recruiters say, they do twist the truth when it benefits them because they get benefits based on their monthly number of recruits (in other words, they have a quota). I wasn't lucky and got a bad recruiter. However, there are good ones. So before you join, find an unbiased opinion and make sure you understand what it will be like.
4. Break Your Bad Habits
Break your bad habits now before you ship out to Basic Training. It will make your time there much less terrible. Smoking, drinking alcohol, snacking, taking naps, etc, are all habits that plague trainees during training. If you break your habits, Basic Combat Training will be that much easier.
5. Don't Stress Over the Drill Sergeants
They yell, dish out punishments, and play mind-games, but they won't physically harm you. Everything is done according to what you can withstand, physically and mentally. If you can endure everything they throw at you and come out on top, then you are worthy to be an American soldier.
A Few More Things to Do Before Going to Basic Training
How should you pay your bills? Is it worth it to stop your phone plan? The video above offers a few more tips for things you may not have thought about.
Note: Enjoy Nice Living Conditions While You Can
Living conditions may be tough compared to your usual standard of living. So enjoy nice living conditions while you can, because if you join the military, sometimes you won't get the best accommodations. One thing most soldiers learn is to never take anything for granted. I, personally have learned to always live life to the fullest. It's better that way.
What Military Life Is Like for a Woman
I knew military life was going to be difficult. Before joining, I'd only talked to males about the Army, and they all pretty much said the same stuff:
- "There's a lot of PT (physical training)."
- "You're gonna get very tired."
- (My favorite): "It's not that bad."
No offense, guys, but I'd say the ego got in the way of the truth. But to be honest, Basic Training was just bad, not overly terrible. Even though the guys' comments showed a knack for understatement, I really did expect it to be worse. There were times when I thought I was going to die, but there were also times when I thought everything was too easy.
And, in case you're wondering, Basic Training is harder physically for a female than it is for a male.
Push-ups are easier for males, and the Army is all about its push-ups. Ruck marches are also easier for males.
But, in sit-ups we are equals! (Sadly the Army doesn't care as much about sit-ups as it does its push-ups.) I can honestly say that I could probably beat most guys in sit-ups. I can even say I know one woman who can do 112 sit-ups in two minutes. Just think: she's almost pumping out one sit-up per second. Amazing, isn't it?
Unexpected Things That Made Basic Training Terrible
Two unexpected things make Basic Training terrible for females: other females and ruck marches.
Just think about it: I woke up at 5 a.m. after going to bed at 11 p.m., and I had a couple of females arguing next to my bunk until 11:30, and they wouldn't listen when I asked them to stop. Then I had to wake up for two hours of chores from midnight until 2 a.m., and my relief wouldn't wake up until 2:30, so my head didn't hit the pillow until 2:40. Overall, I got little more than two and a half hours of sleep. Just imagine doing that after a very full day of sweat, grime, and yelling. Once you have a room full of women in this state, they are ready to rip each other and anyone else to pieces, griping about this and that because they're miserable. Ah! I'm frustrated just remembering that. (Though this isn't as bad compared to other female-related experiences I've had. Note: If you want more stories, just give me a holler and I'll regale you with some good ones.)
The second most terrible thing during Basic for a female was the ruck marches. These marches were bad because most females don't make for good pack mules. I definitely don't. I weigh 125 lbs., and the Drill Sergeants gave us rucks and gear that weighed up to 60 lbs. In general, for a male, that's a little hefty but nothing to worry about. However, for a female my size, that could very well be almost half her weight. I hated ruck marches. I would rather run miles than go on a march. While a heavy backpack would not be bad for a stroll through the park with tennis shoes, "strolling" for endless distances with combat boots, a hot uniform, and a heavy ruck with metal frame, with a weapon (M-16 Rifle) in hand is an entirely different story.
There is a third aspect of Basic Training that was bad, but I was ready for this one: the crude comments. While both men and women made unsavory comments, the guys were worse. This is something that is difficult to get away from in the military, especially during long training sessions and deployments. It's something to get used to, because it's pretty much a tradition.
Once you get to your units, males will become more careful of what they say around females because they are afraid that they'll get a sexual harassment report. Unfortunately, innocent males get harassment charges all the time, and the blame goes to the females. So, understand this: When you enter a room full of males, and they all stop their hooting and laughing as soon as you walk in, it is because you're female.
However, despite the threat of harassment reports, I've still had males try to be the nastiest they could be just to get a rise out of me. The takeaway here is that a female needs to be tough-skinned to be in the Army. A lot of these males are good people and great soldiers, but everyone knows that "boys will be boys," especially amongst each other. Now throw a female in their midst and all of a sudden the males need to figure out what kind of woman she is: overly sensitive or tough-skinned. So be ready to get judged, because it will happen with every person you meet in the military.
Everyone is judged in the military. It's really no big deal. The point is that females are judged on many points. Is she a good soldier? Do I have to pick up her slack? Can she keep up? Is she going to tattle, like the last one?
There will always be a female who was there before you that completely screwed up. Once you show up on the scene, everyone will look at you and wonder if you're the same as the last one: the screw up. As a result, they're careful, just as you should be careful. Never forget your professional attitude as a soldier, let alone as a female soldier representative.
The Female Polar Opposites
Some people make great soldiers, and some people slip through the cracks. People who join the military for a reason other than working hard never should have entered in the first place.
There are also women who make great soldiers and women who never should have joined the military. However, if you're a woman who doesn't work hard, then people will assume it's because you're a woman, and you'll make a bad name for all female soldiers.
Female soldiers who prefer not to work are easy to point out, and there's a word for them that's almost as offensive as the word "slut."
A quick side note: A harsh reality for female soldiers is that you are considered a slut until proven otherwise. It is terrible and unfair for the rest of us, but that's just the stark reality. The sad part is, it's all so normal that no one thinks anything of it. But this is the Army and you just deal with it and drive on. There's nothing to do but prove everyone wrong, and rise to the top.
Now, women tend to cluster around two polar opposite approaches to being a soldier. We've already covered the ones who don't pull their weight and enforce stereotypes about women. Then there are the women who work hard to prove stereotypes wrong.
The great soldiers are the females who don't make excuses about their gender. They don't complain about their menstrual cycle openly, they don't whine, snivel, or gripe about anything or anyone, and they work on their shortcomings. For example, a male can do things that females can't. Men are better pack mules and their bodies are better fitted for endurance. While females aren't naturally good at lugging things around for great distances, they work at it so that it doesn't hamper future operations they may be involved in.
On the other hand, she doesn't call attention to herself and her ability to do everything. If there is a job or detail that needs to be done, she just gets it done. No problem. She's a squared-away soldier just like the rest of 'em.
- Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams—Williams tells the tail of her time in Iraq. She talks all about the daily ins and outs, from the bad food to the fear of war to the sexual dynamics.
- The Status of Gender Integration in the Military: Analysis of Selected Occupations by Margaret C. Harrell, et al—The Rand Corporation conducted research into how women have been integrated into 10 different military occupations. This is pretty technical reading, but it has interesting insights—namely, what occupation you go into within the military matters.
- The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict—This book tells the story of sexual assault in the military. Army Reserve Colonel Ann Wright, who has served in the army for 29 years, says, "I urge everyone-especially women considering joining the U.S. military-to read this important book. Through unforgettable stories, The Lonely Soldier explains the shocking frequency of sexual assault and what can be done."
- Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq by Kirsten Holmstedt—Holmstedt shares the stories of women in the front lines and their accomplishments. If you aren't sure if you can perform under the pressure and conditions of war, this read will prove that it has been done by many before you.
- U.S. Army Survival Handbook, Revised by Matt Larsen—This book is written by Sergeant First Class Matt Larsen. He has been a trainer in survival and fighting techniques for the Army Rangers, and many of his insights are contained in these chapters. This handbook is standard issue for U.S. Special Operation Forces and pilots and covers how to survive in any climate.