Written by Haleigh Taylor, senior at the United States Military Academy at West Point
Almost every time I talk to someone about where I chose to go to college, they are shocked. Then the inevitable question; “What is it like being a woman at the United States Military Academy?” If I happen to be wearing one of my many bright colored “girlie” skirts or dresses, they usually comment on how they did not realize “girls are allowed to be girls.” I think that people struggle to comprehend why I love going to a school where sleep is limited, most of my time is regulated, and I have to wear an unflattering and uncomfortable uniform every day.
Many young people, girls especially immediately dismiss the idea of attending such an institution. I think that is a tragedy. West Point has been an ongoing struggle. I cannot lie and say it was all easy, but the benefits far outweigh the hardships and, as the famous saying goes, nothing worth having comes easily. I am both physically and emotionally stronger. I have the best friends in the world that I can trust in any situation. I am receiving a well-rounded education which has helped teach me how to juggle many important and time consuming demands. I am more comfortable in different situations and have become a confident leader. And I have had experiences my friends at civilian colleges could not even imagine; spending three weeks in Taiwan, shadowing Drill Instructors at Basic Training, riding in tanks across a muddy field, firing many machine guns, flying in a Blackhawk helicopter, acting as a counselor for New Cadets at Cadet Basic Training, jumping out of airplanes, and so much more.
When I told my high school friends that I was going to West Point they stared at me with shocked expressions and exclaimed, “WHY!? Why would you want to do something like that” They did not understand my desire, and I was unable to put it into words so it became an uncomfortable topic within our friendships. Outside of my group of friends many family members and people around town shared the disbelief and lack of understanding about my decision. People could not figure out how a small-town track star, dancer and cheerleading captain would make it in, what many called, “the ultimate boys only club”.
Granted, there are less than two hundred girls in each class at West Point (Plebe Class, Yearling Class, Cow Class, and Firstie Class). Girls are not excluded from anything. West Point has come a long way since the first female class was allowed admission in 1976. We have to meet the same academic and military standards as all of the guys, and we have to get at least a 70 on the standard Army Physical Fitness Test just like them too. Being a girl does not mean carrying a lighter ruck sack for road marches or sleeping in a sleeping bag while the guys have only their ponchos. We do all of the same training.
At times it even feels like we are expected to do more. Girls are met with a stigma of not being as strong as the guys. We overcome this by pushing each other and refusing to settle for less than our absolute best. There is somewhat of a joke about girls being harder on other girls, but it has some truth. No girl wants another to fail because then it unfortunately makes all of us look weaker. However the guys push us as well. I have come to realize that most guys have no problem with girls at West Point, or even in the regular Army. It is like one family; we all want each other to succeed, having anyone fail can negatively affect the whole group. In a military that is relying more on women to fulfill positions traditionally held by males, people are starting to realize women have a huge role in military victory.
A major misconception about women in the military is that we are not feminine. I find this incredibly insulting and annoying. I am a girl. I love being a girl. I have a ton of clothes and more shoes than I know what to do with. Yet I also enjoy the hands on experiences I get doing military training. I have no problem crawling through the mud or sleeping under the stars. There is a time and a place for both parts of me. The first time my friends at West Point saw me in civilian clothes, and with my long blond hair down, it took a minute for them to recognize me. They too had forgotten that I was not just another one of the guys. I think that is the hardest part about being a female in the military though. I have had to prove myself capable and competent in the military training without being “babied” in order to gain respect from people around me. I have also had to prove that I am a girl who likes to dress up and let my hair down.
My experiences have been plentiful and I have learned much more than I could ever recount. In order to share what I have discovered during my time at West Point and hopefully open eyes to a very different but wonderful way of college, and life, I can only think to share some of my personal stories.
Arriving on R-day was terrifying. Although I knew I had this desire to go to West Point, Reception Day made me question that decision. Cadet Basic Training (affectionately called Beast) was a tough six weeks for me. I think everyone struggles with Beast in their own way, whether they want to admit it or not. Not only was it the first time I was away from home but I was unable to communicate outside of two phone calls and snail mail letters. It was also the initial taste of real military training. I honestly questioned staying at West Point everyday that summer and most of Plebe year.
Plebe year, they told us, is designed to push you past your preconceived limits. On top of the rigorous academics, every cadet plays some sort of sport, participates in military training, cheers at home football games, and endures being cut off from some of the modern conveniences of regular college life. Plebes also have the responsibility of delivering the NY Times every morning, picking up and later returning laundry bundles, collecting the trash everyday and not talking- unless inside a room. It is a difficult year where you get creative with ways to make friends and have fun. Every Plebe is the same- at the bottom of the totem pole. The only difference between a male and a female plebe is one course: males take a boxing class while females take a self defense combative class. Other than that, everyone is equal, on the bottom of the barrel within the Corps of Cadets. Strangely that awkward year gave me some of my best memories with some of my closest friends.
Next, we experienced Cadet Field Training (Buckner). There, once again, I was doing intense military training with my fellow, male, classmates. I was the only girl in my squad, a team of about 7-9 people that I did all of my training with. One of the guys looked at me at the end and said they were very impressed with me because I stayed with them on road marches, rarely complained about the physically toughness of the training and they had never seen me cry; he told me they always expected me to fall out. I was shocked and a little upset by this. I had not realized the gravity of the stigma until that point. I began to wonder if people had always expected me to just quit when things got physically hard or fall down in a heap crying.
Cow year I was offered the Chain of Command position of Platoon Sergeant (PSG). I felt proud and excited about being asked and said I would definitely take the job. One of the guys in my company was upset he was passed over for PSG and told me the only reason I got it over him was because they needed a girl in the Chain of Command, all the other positions were guys. I was angry; I do not take handouts like that. I had thought it was a sign of the hard work I was doing and leadership skills I was honing. I went to a good friend, the one who had offered me the position and our company First Sergeant, and told him I no longer wanted it. He was confused and we talked about it. He said that me being a girl had nothing to do with being asked because on the company level the Chain of Command does not require gender slots to be filled. I ended up taking the position back but was highly motivated to prove to everyone I deserved it. At the end of the semester, my platoon had one of the better physical and academic standing in the company.
A month ago I was out in the field at West Point’s newest training event Cadet Leadership Development Training (CLDT); three weeks of very intense infantry tactics created to test our leadership and composure in stressful situations. Again I was the only girl in my squad, and only one of four in my platoon (four squads that work together). Since my squad had most of the bigger guys, we were deemed the weapons squad; meaning we got to carry around the big heavy machines guns and a lot of ammunition. My squad-mates were tentative to see how I would handle carrying all of the extra weight, one even offered to carry it for me. Outraged I grabbed my extra bag of rounds and marched on. They soon realized I can hold my own. I later found out that our trainer team was also nervous about me being in the weapons squad. I find it insulting that in order to gain their respect I had to prove I could handle the physical aspect before they even noticed my tactical or leadership skills. I understand the importance of physical fitness in a military lifestyle, but before even giving me a chance I had to prove myself physically worthy of leading these guys. CLDT ended amazingly for me, I honestly grew as a person and leader. But I will never forget that lesson. At the end of the training, one of our enlisted training team members came up to me to tell me that if I were a guy, I would make a great infantry squad leader. He honestly meant it as a sincere compliment but it kind of felt like a slap in the face. He essentially told me that I’m okay, for a girl but I would be better if I were a guy. I should have said something to him, but I did not. Unfortunately, the stigmas against women in the military still run deep in the infantry and special force branches, even if the men do not realize it.
Now I am about to start my final year, the year the Class of 2011 has waited for since 02 July 2007. We all have struggled, fought, and grown together and are ready to embark on our next adventures. As we head out into the “real Army” I hope my class takes with it all of the lessons and shared experiences to help make the Army a more accepting place for all people. The number of women in the military is growing, and at the same time a positive reception of them is also growing. More jobs are open to women, and the list is only growing. Women are personally embracing the military and adding their own flair.
West Point is an amazing institution, and although cadets love to complain about it, it has helped me become more outgoing, more self-assured, and much more able to handle stresses. I could not imagine what my life would be like had I chosen a different “college experience”. West Point continues to teach me to be adaptive, caring, creative, confident leader of character ready to serve my country. I think more girls would benefit from West Point, or some military experience in general. I can definitely understand that a military life is not for everyone, but for me, it has been a gateway to discover who I truly am, and how much I can actually accomplish. The struggles only help us become stronger, more confident individuals who happen to look good in skirts and heels.