The US Army has been taking a cautious approach to the integration of women in the infantry, attempting to balance the gung-ho mentalities of many female recruits -who are attempting to prove themselves equal to their male warfighter peers- with the realities of how women perform in such high-intensity combat roles.
For the United States Army, the integration mandate set into motion during the Obama administration has been a challenge, both in terms of cost and policy changes. For example, just making the required renovations (female barracks rooms, security cameras, monitoring stations and the like) to ensure safe accommodation of female recruits in a traditionally -and militarily necessary- high-testosterone environment that, up until recently, had been exclusively male.
Once a task that could be done at any hour of a male recruit’s limited free time, laundry has now become a scheduled event when the “female” sign goes on the door- despite the fact that men and women have laundered clothes in civilian laundromats since the introduction of such establishments.
Female recruits have also been given their own squad bay as a sleeping quarters, which separates them from their male counterparts, eroding a level of closeness that infantrymen were once literally brought up in and considered to be part of their culture.
In prior eras, the infantryman knew everything about his battle brothers. Their eating habits, their proficiency level in regards to hygiene, whether or not they snored at night and their troubles at home. Nothing was private, nothing was taboo and there were no secrets. This has seemingly changed with the integration, causing many current and former infantrymen to quietly mutter amongst one another about whether or not they will “become like the rest of the Army,” a culture they once proudly separated themselves from.
According to training brigade commander Colonel Kelly Kendrick, this separation affects the women, too.
“There’s nothing they dislike more than to be separated,” he said, adding that they just want to“fit in and do the same as everybody else.”
With this comment, the conversation then comes to the point of capability and readiness, something which has plagued female troops since the beginning of time. As the American warfighter moves away from the once normal motorized and Forward Operating Base-centric way of doing war in favor of heavier loads on foot in less-forgiving environments, the question of “can they hack it” becomes less one of heart, but more of physiology.
With generally weaker bodies and bone structure than their male counterparts, this has become a problem once you slap on body armor, machine gun ammo and a heavy rucksack. According to Lt. Col Sam Edwards, commander of 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry regiment, more than 36 percent of Benning’s women have left- roughly twice the rate of men. Injuries have sidelined other women who plan to restart the training but will be relegated to other units. Graduation rates among women are also lower than their male counterparts. As a result of their more frequent injuries, they require tailored injury prevention training, as well as iron and calcium supplements.
Lastly, the culture of the infantry has long been exclusively male, and was very much centered around having as many “Alpha” males as possible being able to work together in hostile environments- often where the traditional rules of civility, culture and chivalry did not apply, or worse, could get you killed.
“It was a boys club for a long time,” Kendrick told the Associated Press. “You have to be professional.”
The true test, as it always has been, will be how things go when the women who do graduate enter their new units. For seasoned Army and Marine troops, Basic Training and Boot Camp have always been just that- Basic. The “first step,” and largely considered irrelevant in light of one’s professional duties, new soldiers -throughout the documented history of America’s grunts- have often been told by their peers to avoid talking about their triumphs in basic training. To the grunt, no one cares. That was the easiest time of your life, and much more will be expected of you- both in mutual suffering and responsibility.
As with all things, it seems, only time will tell if integration was a failed social experiment or a genius implementation of new talent into one of the more venerable branches of the US Army.
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