Thursday, June 29, 2006


On July 1st, I reported to West Point for R-Day (Reception Day), the first day of Cadet Basic Training, affectionately known as “Beast Barracks,” or just plain “Beast.”

There is a photo of me from early that morning before we left the hotel for West Point. I was a painfully thin kid who epitomized the deer in the headlights look. My hair, which was already short, would not need to be cut again – at least I was hoping to avoid an extra trip to the Cadet Barber Shop. I was wearing a short sleeved pink shirt and navy slacks. And black socks. We were supposed to report to R-Day with black socks and black low-quarter shoes. I had forgotten my black socks at home and so was wearing a pair of my dad’s black socks – a pair he had actually discarded the night before because they had a hole in them and I had had to fetch them back out of the white plastic Holiday Inn trash can.

My mother was probably the one who took my picture, to record it for posterity, as I can’t imagine my father thinking to do it. The expression on my face said, “Why the fuck are you taking my picture?” Although as a shy, prudish 18-year old, I would not have said the f-word. I would have still blushed upon hearing other people use that word, and at the time I wouldn’t have known a lot of people who used it.

That was soon to change. As were so many things.

I was a naïve idealist as I got into the family car, and we drove down 9W for West Point. In that respect, I was not a lot different from most of my future classmates.

West Point tends to attract gung ho overachievers, patriots, idealists, for whom the fact that a West Point education is “free” is no laughing matter. For some, it is the only way they can afford college. For others, it makes a huge difference. Although there are a few, there are not a lot of wealthy kids that go to West Point.

You get, by and large, all-American kids from all over America. They tend to come from the top ten percent of their high school classes, from predominantly public schools, National Honor Society members, varsity athletes, often team captains and class presidents. Leaders. Many have been the stars of their small, local high schools, and it is a big deal that they are going to West Point. Some come directly from the active Army where they were stellar young enlisted soldiers, or via USMAPS, West Point’s prep school.

These new cadet candidates come to West Point en masse at the beginning of each summer. These former standouts come to West Point to find themselves not only one of many, but also as “plebes,” the lowest of the low in a very hierarchical and stratified sea of gray.

90% of them will be men, only 10% women. As a plebe, you don’t want to stick out. As a female cadet, you automatically do. Females and fuck-ups stick out like sore thumbs at West Point.

It may have changed by now (I can only hope!), but when my fellow female classmates and I attended West Point, we really tried to blend in, to be invisible. We did not want to be men, or look like men -- but we did not want to look like women, either.

The Army sort of helped us out. At that time, we were not allowed to have long hair. It had to be cut so it fell above the bottom of our collars. But if we wanted to avoid getting hazed for our hair possibly being too long, we had to keep it way shorter than that. We were not allowed to wear earrings. We were not allowed to wear make-up.

We were issued gray skirts to go along with our basic cadet uniforms. We could wear them to class, but never to formation or in parades. Women cadets hardly ever, if ever, wore their optional skirts. They were like a joke. Skirts only made you stick out. Like a woman. Which you didn’t want to do. Trust me.

On R-Day we were all supposed to report to the football stadium up by Lusk Reservoir, above the Plain and the Barracks. It was here we would tearfully, manfully, stoically say goodbye to our loved ones, tote our one small, simple suitcase or overnight bag, and board buses that would whisk us away to North, South, and Central Areas. Where all hell would then break loose.

The sense of fear was ubiquitous, but it was the total innocence and naiveté of all those young, idealistic men and women that must have been even more palpable.

I, of course, had read Lucian Truscott IV’s legendary novel Dress Gray several times and had prepared myself for having to “drop those bags” and “pick up those bags” over and over again. Only I never had to experience that little ritual of R-Day hazing. Just different ones.

My father, who had himself graduated from West Point some 40 years before and who firmly believed that women should not attend West Point, took me out into our backyard a few days before we left for New York. He showed me how to stand at attention, how to make a left face, a right face, and an about face. He also gave me the one piece of advice that would serve me well not only at West Point and in the Army, but pretty much everywhere else as well: “Just remember,” he said, “there are SOBs wherever you go. And keep a sense of humor!”

As I boarded the already crowded bus that was going to take me to Beast Barracks and eternal damnation, I frantically looked around for a friendly face. Not that the boys on this bus were hostile or mean-looking. They all looked pretty much as scared as I felt. But they were all males, and I was looking for a kindred spirit, someone more like… me. I was looking for another woman. Luckily, I found one. And nobody else was sitting next to her yet.

I was not in the first class at West Point to have women. You could not have paid me enough to be in that first class! For the most part, their lives were a living hell. Not the hell of being a cadet at West Point, but the hell of being a woman cadet at West Point, a place where surely women did not belong.

I was in one of the earlier classes, old enough to be considered one of the “pioneer women.” At least, I have been told that. I did not really think of myself as a pioneer woman. I just thought of myself as a woman who happened to be going to West Point. In high school, we had been encouraged to do whatever we wanted to in life, and by the time I came along, that included going to West Point.

People sometimes ask me if it was a lot harder being a woman at West Point than a man. As a naïve, idealistic cadet, I would have stoically replied: “It pretty much sucks for everyone.” Today, looking back, with more distance and more maturity, I would say unequivocally, “Yes. It was hard to be a woman at West Point.” I am not sure I would say it was harder, but there were definite differences in the typical experiences of male and female cadets.

I would wager that almost every single female cadet experienced sexual harassment while at West Point; many, unfortunately, experienced sexual assault as well. Without a doubt, every female cadet experienced misogyny and derision simply because they were women invading a male bastion of manhood. This negative attitude, while not held openly by all, or even most, male cadets and officers, was certainly prevalent enough to be pervasive.

But nothing we experienced as later female cadets was nearly as terrible and ghastly as it was for the first class of women, and probably the next two or three after that. I cannot really speak to how it is now. I have heard, from younger women grads, that it is a lot better these days. At the same time, we read in the paper and hear in the news, stories of sexual harassment and assault at our service academies. By male cadets towards female cadets. By future Army officers in training upon other future Army officers in training. And this makes me very, very sad indeed.


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