Monday, July 31, 2006

Beast Squad

New cadets receive most of their training during Cadet Basic Training from upperclass cadets. There are two details assigned to run Beast. The first detail runs from R-Day through about the first three weeks, and the second lasts through Lake Frederick and the march back to West Point before the Acceptance Parade in late August. Splitting Beast into two details gives twice the number of upperclassmen (mostly Firsties, but some cows [juniors] as well) the opportunity to have cadet leadership positions in Beast. [Cadet Field Training, which is the summer training for new yearlings out at Camp Buckner, also has two details. Thus, almost every single Firstie gets the chance to lead and train either new cadets or new yearlings.]

The Corps of Cadets comprises 4,000 plus cadets and makes up one Brigade, composed of four regiments. Thus, one class would contain enough cadets to make up a regiment. So, it should come as no surprise that the 1,000 or so new cadets who report to West Point for Cadet Basic Training are organized into a regiment.

The Regimental Commander for CBT is the “King (or Queen) of Beasts.” This is a highly prestigious position, the most sought after position amongst the movers and shakers of any given class. Come Fall, the Administration usually chooses one of the Beast commanders to be the First Captain, or Brigade Commander of the entire Corps of Cadets.

Beast Company Commander is a prestigious position as well. There are nine (I think) Cadet Basic Training companies and thus, 18 total Beast Company Commanders. I barely remember my Beast Company Commanders. In fact, I can only remember one of them. We didn’t see them very often; mostly at formations, out of the corners of our eyes. They were like mythical gods. I don’t remember the King of Beast, either of them, at all. I am not sure if I ever saw them in the flesh or not, but I probably did, at a distance. A distant distance. Plus, they probably addressed us as a class at a lecture or briefing or two.

What I do remember vividly are my two squad leaders. Most of the training in Beast is done at the squad level. To me then, twenty-five years after the fact, the position to have during Beast would be squad leader. If what you are interested in is the actual hands-on training of new cadets, transforming them from civilians to soldiers and cadets in a few short weeks, then Beast squad leaders are the most important trainers there are.

My one regret about my time at West Point – well, one of my regrets -- is that I never got to witness Beast from the other side of the fence. As a Firstie, I was a cadre member out at Camp Buckner. A position I enjoyed, but it wasn’t Beast. The Beast cadre are in charge of just about everything in Beast, and Beast is a fast-moving, tightly run ship. Any position in Beast is challenging, fast-paced, and exhausting. I would also imagine it to be very rewarding.

I had two outstanding squad leaders during Beast. I can’t imagine how I would have fared if I’d had an asshole for a Beast squad leader. Some people must have had asshole squad leaders, though, as West Point seems to have its fair share. If you are lucky enough to have a positive, upbeat, yet demanding squad leader, one who inspires you, then I think that can make all the difference in the world.

My first detail squad leader was a Firstie. He was somewhat laid back, if anyone in Beast could ever be laid back. He was calm, even-keeled and had a good sense of humor. He taught us the “Doo Ah Diddy” cadence from the movie Stripes, and his motto for our squad was “Moderation is the key.”

My second detail squad leader was a cow, but he was also prior service, which meant he’d been an enlisted soldier in the Army before coming to West Point. He was quiet and soft-spoken but led by example. I didn’t realize how much I admired him as a leader until his graduation two years later. My former Beast roommate and I happened to spot him in the post-graduation milieu up at Michie Stadium. We saluted him as a brand new Second Lieutenant and then gave him giant hugs. We were so happy for him and so thankful for all he had done for us. He was just an all around good guy.

The first phase of Beast involved a lot of inprocessing; equipment issue; uniform fittings; academic testing for placement in the Fall; briefings; lectures; small group instruction on topics like duty and honor; manual of arms instruction; and close order drill. The second phase of Beast was more tactical or soldierly in nature and involved road marches; weapons qualification; and the weeklong bivouac out at Lake Frederick.

Field training, although a lot more strenuous, was also a lot more laid back than training and life back at the Barracks. The cadre tended to be a bit more relaxed out in the field, and they didn’t haze us as much. Plus, we were usually allowed to eat when we were out in the field.

I will never forget the first time we were issued C-rations in the field. C-rations, the predecessors of modern MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), came in OD green cans, and we were issued P-38s (tiny can openers that we could hang on our dog tags) with which to open them. C-rations were not the tastiest of meals, to put it mildly, but if you were hungry enough or had been deprived of food for a while, they tasted pretty damned awesome. The first time we were issued C-rations as new cadets we ate everything there was to eat in our box of rations.

C-rations were novel; plus, we were starving and the cadre let us eat. My C-ration entree happened to be spaghetti. There were lots of different entrees available, none of them glamorous or appetizing, but each ration also came with crackers, processed cheese spread or peanut butter; canned fruit; chocolate (my favorite was the John Wayne bar – kind of like a Nestlé’s crunch, but not nearly as good. The chocolate in C-rations was atrocious as it had to contain something so the chocolate wouldn’t melt in high heat.) Each C-ration also came with an accessory packet which included coffee, sugar, creamer, cocoa mix, salt and pepper, toilet paper, matches, and Chiclets gum. Prior service new cadets quickly taught us that you could mix the cocoa, sugar, and creamer packets with water from your canteen to make this totally awesome product called “Ranger Pudding.”

What we didn’t know about C-rations was that they were fortified and laden with mega calories so an infantry soldier in combat would have enough energy to make it through a strenuous day of fighting. Eating one C-ration in its entirety meant you had just consumed 3-4,000 calories easily. Nobody told us that, and we couldn’t figure out why, after our C-ration lunch, we all felt so incredibly full.

That same day, we happened to have dinner out in the field, too, but instead of C-rations we had hot A’s trucked out from the Mess Hall. The main course happened to be steak. Since we were out in the field and the cadre generally left us alone to eat then, we could have gone to town on those steaks. But we were all still so full from the C-rations at lunch most of us couldn’t even look at a steak, let alone eat one. What a travesty! It made us wonder then, if this hadn’t all been part of the cadre’s plan to mess with us some more about food.

There were twelve new cadets in my Beast Squad, ten males and two females. All of us made it through Beast, and all but one of us graduated from West Point four years later. (There was one member of our squad who ended up resigning at the end of yearling year.) We did not stay together all through West Point. After Beast, we were assigned to academic companies for our Plebe year. Two of my squad members and I ended up being in the same Plebe year company. At the end of Plebe year, we were shuffled again and assigned to still different companies for our upperclass years. One of my Beast squad members and I ended up in the same upperclass company together. There were some Beast squadmates I never really saw again after Beast, except in passing. I ran into one such squadmate this past Fall at our twentieth West Point reunion, and we instinctively gave each other a big hug. I really don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me. We haven’t seen each other since graduation, or maybe even well before that. But we had gone through so much together during Beast it would have been strange not to embrace each other at our West Point reunion. And I am not the sort to wantonly give people giant hugs. Beast Barracks was an extremely stressful, extremely challenging six weeks that changed the lives of everyone who went through it. Going through this experience together, as a small band of brothers and sisters made us bond in a very special, unusual way. One that can never be undone.

One of the highlights of Beast was the helicopter ride every squad got to take as part of tactical orientation. We took turns filing into a Huey helicopter and being flown around West Point, the doors wide open, the wind whipping through, the whir of the blades constant. I have a black and white 8 X 10 photo of our Beast squad posing in front of the helicopter after that ride. We were wearing green fatigues with the sleeves rolled up, combat boots, and steel pots. We were smiling. We were all so young, but, damnit, we looked like real, live soldiers.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Gotta sing! Gotta dance!

I saw a commercial on TV last night: a bunch of Charlton Hestonesque slaves rowing inside the bowels of a giant ship. This mean dude rower boss is chanting: "Row! Row! Row!" All of a sudden these two little M&Ms, who are in one of the rowing rows, start singing: "Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream..." and everyone else chimes in. The rower boss is NOT amused. He cracks his whip a few times, yells, and there is silence. Then... you hear these little M&M voices singing: "Don't rock the boat, don't rock the boat, baby!" And all of the rowing slaves chime in.

That is SOOO me. I am a little M&M, singing (atrociously, admittedly!) and rocking the boat. That is what I have ALWAYS done wherever I have been. Singing (atrociously) and encouraging others to rock the boat, baby. Yeah.

Hell, if I could sing terribly in the Army and nobody shot me, well...... Honest to God, this is how I make it through everywhere in life. I sing songs, I change lyrics to fit the situation, and... the rowers LIKE it.

Or not. To each his own.

But it is not going to make me stop singing.

I am not an M&M, by the way. The commercial was for M&Ms. What caught my attention was the spontaneous singing at a seemingly inopportune time.

I have a tendency to do two things spontaneously: make bad puns and burst out in song. The first habit I “get,” as I love words so much. The second one, I don’t. Because I have absolutely no musical talent whatsoever.

I can’t carry a tune. I can’t read music. (I do know F-A-C-E and Every Good Boy Does Fine, but I honestly can’t tell one note from another by hearing it.) Hell, I can’t even remember lyrics correctly. None of this stops me from singing – albeit usually only a bar or two out loud.

Puns – and I think bad puns are sooo good – come to me naturally. I can’t help myself. It is not even me really. I mean, most of the time they are not even conscious exhortations. There must be some primordial stew of words in my subconscious and something external triggers the sudden release of a play on words. Rarely do I “think” of a pun. Someone else in there is thinking these things up and getting them out – much faster than I could ever think them up, that’s for sure!

Song lyrics burst forth, too. Something will happen or someone will say something, and then all of a sudden a line from a song will pop into my head. And out of my mouth. More often than not, they are from bad pop songs from the 70s. Often I cannot tell you the name of the song or even have the vaguest notion who sang it. It’s like random radio waves from the past are floating around inside my head, and my mouth spews them out at appropriate – or inappropriate – times.

There must be two pools inside my head – one full of words in the bad pun pool, the other full or random song lyrics.

I don’t understand the singing part, I really don’t. I usually don’t get the lyrics right when I sing them, and I am absolutely musically impaired. I would never, ever, ever go on “Name That Tune.” (“Password” would be more my style.) I sing so poorly, you would think I would never open my mouth in public.

During Beast we had to report to this gray granite building and “try out” for the West Point choirs and glee club. It was not an option. It was part of our training schedule, like being issued combat boots or taking a writing placement test. We each had to go into this dark room and sing for some guy who would then decide if we had any singing potential or not. Apparently, it didn’t matter if you wanted to sing in any of these groups or not.

I thought this was ridiculous and a complete waste of time. Especially for me. I knew I couldn’t sing, and I certainly had absolutely no desire to be in any choral group.

I was the one who volunteered to take the History of Music in ninth grade just so I wouldn’t have to be in chorus. And I even had a part in a school musical once where I was supposed to sing badly. It came quite naturally. My only solo EVER in a school musical.

I told the choir man with his little clipboard that I could not sing; this was a waste of both of our time. He said, “Nonsense! Everyone can sing.” He then had me sing a few bars from some song – probably the “Star Spangled Banner.” When I finished, there was a long moment of silence. “Well…,” he said finally, checking something off on his clipboard with a flourish, “we won’t be needing you.”

I thought that was so mean. I told him I couldn’t sing. What did he think – that I was just being modest? Now here he was insulting me.

I sing all the time, usually silently in my head. Where it sounds quite lovely, I have to say.

The only time in my life when I have felt totally uninhibited whilst singing aloud – other than when I was a toddler belting out “Oh, Susanna” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in church because they were the only songs I knew the words to – was when my children were babies. I figured they really wouldn’t be able to tell if I could sing well or not, and they were a captive audience. Sure, they could always cry if they didn’t like my singing, but they always seemed to find it comforting. No matter how badly I mangled either the lyrics or the tune.

I sang them lullabies (“Hush, little baby, don’t you cry…”). I sang old songs my mother had sung to me (“Down in the meadow in an itty, bitty pool, swam three little fishies and their momma fishy, too…”). I sang songs I had learned in elementary school music, classic All-American ditties like “Erie Canal” and “Git along Little Dogies.” I sang Broadway show tunes and songs from movie musicals (“Shall we dance…?”). I LOVE musicals. As long as it was just me and my babies I felt free to sing, sing, sing.

I used to put musical soundtracks on the stereo (my favorite was “The Sound of Music”) and dance around the room with the boys, even when they were only a few months old, and SING! My babies gave me every indication that they enjoyed this immensely, smiling, laughing, and cooing with glee.

They don’t much like me to sing anymore. At all. Period. My older son was in the musical “Annie” at school this past year, and those songs kept going through my head and bursting forth at odd times – like when I was driving my children to school. My older son, in his deep, monotone voice, would inform me that I had gotten the lyrics wrong, while my younger son would simply shove one of his atrocious alternative heavy metals CDs into the CD player and crank up the volume.


I was just singing a song. It’s not like I was planning on trying out for “American Idol” or something.

My children are lucky. Or blessed. They can both sing. Clearly not a trait they inherited from me. My older son, if we coax him long enough, will sing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” spot on. And I frequently hear my younger son singing songs from chorus in the shower. Usually either patriotic songs, like “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” or Disney classics, like “Bippity Boppity Boo.” He would kill me if he knew I was writing this. He just sounds so carefree and happy when he is singing in the shower. He actually wanted to be in chorus.

To tell the truth, I am kind of hurt by my children’s aversion to my musical outbursts. Yes, I realize they are teenagers now, so they are pretty much averse to anything I say or do. But my memories of singing to them as babies are so precious. And I just plain like to sing. It is just my way of expressing my joi de vivre or singing the blues or rallying the troops. Personally, I think life should be one big musical with people bursting forth in song and dance all the time.

Rock the boat, baby!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Truth or Dare

There are two questions I really hate to get. The first is: “So, what was it like to be a woman at West Point?”

And the second, usually asked when someone finds out that my father went to West Point, is: “So, is that why you went to West Point?” This question tends to be more rhetorical than genuine. It is all-knowing and dismissive, like the person asking it is a licensed therapist and I am some stupid fucking idiot to whom this thought has never occurred. Would they ask a man that, if he went to West Point and they found out his father had gone to West Point, too? I am not sure. Maybe.

I hate the first question a lot more than the second. I hate it because it makes me feel like a circus sideshow freak. Something I try to avoid in daily life. I hate the second question because it is patronizing and condescending.

A woman went to West Point. Why? Why would she ever do that? Oh. Her father went there, don’t you know? Ah. I see now….

Great. I am glad you see. Because I sure as hell don’t.

I don’t talk about West Point a lot, or the fact that I went there. If West Point happens to come up in conversation or someone asks me where I went to college, I will tell them that I graduated from West Point. I don’t feel like I am trying to hide the fact. But I don’t go out of my way to bring it up or talk about it, either. I don’t feel a need to.

And there is probably a part of me that doesn’t want to set myself up for the invariable “So, what was it like to be a woman at West Point?”

While I think of myself as a West Point graduate, I do not think of myself as a woman West Point graduate. I do not think it is any big deal that I am a woman and that I went to West Point. I just think of myself as a West Pointer.

Yes, of course, I am aware that I am a woman and that I was in one of the first classes at West Point to have women. And that it was hard. It was hard being at West Point period. And it was hard being a woman at West Point.

I usually tell people that I would never put “enjoy” and “West Point” in the same sentence. West Point basically sucked. And I think it sucked for everyone who went there. West Point is not supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be hard and challenging and stressful. I made a lot of really close friends there, especially other women friends. And I value those friendships immensely.

My roman a clef about West Point was always going to start with the words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Only you know who beat me to the punch. Also, I would have written it: “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times,” because I think the “worst” part looms foremost in my mind.

I have very ambivalent feelings about my experience at West Point. But many grads, male and female, have a love/hate relationship with their gray granite alma mater.

I usually tell people that West Point is hard for everyone who goes there, man or woman. And I believe that. I also know that women cadets are harassed and mistreated simply because they are women. I do not know any woman grad personally who did not experience misogyny and sexual harassment at some level. And some women experienced them a lot more and a lot worse than others.

Yes, I experienced name-calling, hazing, and sexual harassment at West Point simply because I was a woman. I also experienced name-calling, hazing, and remedial training because I did something wrong or did not do what I was supposed to do. One of the problems with the military is that the powers to be tend to confuse misogyny and sexual harassment with hazing and military toughness, or to perceive them as merely a form of hazing or military toughness.

I think this is very dangerous.

Just as there is no place for racial or ethnic bigotry in the military, there is also no place for misogyny and sexual harassment. Just as it would be inappropriate and wrong to call a minority soldier by a racial epithet, so, too, is it wrong to call a female soldier a whore, a bitch, or a slut.

If a soldier does not perform up to standard or makes a mistake, he or she clearly needs correction or discipline or training. For his or her performance. Not for his race or ethnic background or gender.

Was it harder being a woman than a man at West Point?

I hesitate to make a generalization.

Certainly for many women, especially in the first few years that women were at West Point, I would say yes.

Do I think that I would have had it easier at West Point if I had been a man? Yes.

The military is a very male-oriented, male-dominated institution where machismo and physical prowess and brute strength are highly valued. The whole warrior ethos is thoroughly ingrained. Women are a minority in this fraternity. Fitting in is a constant struggle. But women today are clearly more accepted in the military than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Women at West Point are clearly more accepted than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

Juvenile, frat-style hazing has no place in the military or at a service academy. Neither do racial bigotry, religious intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, sexual harassment, or sexual assault. A true leader would never embrace or engender any of these mindsets or behaviors in others. It is my hope that West Point is slowly but surely moving beyond all of these injustices.

But I am not holding my breath.

So, did I go to West Point because my father went there?

My older brother didn’t go to West Point. Neither did my younger sister. And I can’t imagine that either of them ever really considered it. Which is fine.

Of the three of us, it would have been far more “usual” or “normal” for my brother to have gone to West Point because 1) he was a male; 2) at the time he went to college, only men could attend the service academies; and 3) no one had even thought of women going to West Point then.

It was not my brother who wanted to go to West Point, though.

I can remember swinging on our backyard swing set, sometime in the early seventies, when ERA was being debated and I was still young enough to swing on a swing set. My mother came outside to tell my father she had just read an article about women attending the service academies. Wouldn’t it be “neat” if my sister or I ended up going to West Point? she asked him.

I don’t remember his response. A grunt, a shrug of his shoulders. Or nothing. I can’t imagine him being positive: “Oh, yes, honey, wouldn’t that be fabulous if one of our daughters went to West Point? It would make me so proud!”

Don’t think so.

My father was very vocal when it came to women being at West Point. Plain and simple, he did not believe women should be allowed to attend West Point. He probably didn’t think women should be in the military at all. But if they were in the Army and there was a need for well-trained women officers, then he thought there should be a separate service academy just for women. Women did not belong at West Point, though. Period.

On that he was very clear.

Perhaps it was my mother’s enthusiasm about the new policy change that should have surprised me. My mother was the one who wanted me to go to Smith or Wellesley. Two opportunities she had never had. Not that she had had the opportunity to go to West Point, either.

I have nothing against Smith or Wellesley. In fact, I hold great respect for both institutions. But they are worlds apart from West Point. I am just not sure how my mother could say Smith, Wellesley, and West Point all in the same breath.

I don’t recall my father breathing the name of any college or university as “the one” to go to. He did say that he would never pay for me to go to Harvard; for some reason, he thought only elitist jackasses went to Harvard. Princeton was a “playground for rich boys,” although he knew some smart men who had gone there. He had some good friends who had gone to Yale, and they were genuinely intelligent, nice men. So if I insisted on going to an Ivy League school, he would let me go there. If I really wanted to. Which I didn’t.

He did not tell me not to go to West Point. He didn’t really say anything about West Point. Aside from the fact that he didn’t think women should be allowed to go there.

I will be the first to say that I was always trying to please my father. And never, ever felt that I did. My mother says that my father was always very proud of me. That may be, but I never felt it.

Whatever. He’s dead now, so I’ll never know for sure.

I can honestly say that as an eighteen year old, I really, truly wanted to go to West Point. In fact, I wanted to go there so badly that I didn’t feel a need to apply anywhere else. My college guidance counselor, unflappable man that he was, simply said that was out of the question. There was no way to guarantee acceptance at one of the service academies, regardless of how good my grades and test scores might be, because application to any of the service academies was a complex process that involved obtaining a nomination from one of my congressmen.

In my naïve fantasy world, I had no doubt whatsoever that I would be accepted to West Point. But I agreed to apply to other “backup schools,” even though I couldn’t imagine going anywhere but West Point.

And WHY did I want to go to West Point so badly?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I attended one of my dad’s West Point reunions. That was when I decided I wanted to go there. I was so impressed by the place – by its history, tradition, and sense of mission. The idea of serving my country appealed to me. The thought of doing something really, really, really tough and challenging and worthwhile was as alluring as a drug.

I wanted to be tested. I wanted to see what I was made of. I was looking for the ultimate challenge.

I had always gotten really good grades in school. I was always encouraged to study whatever I wanted to study, to pursue whatever interests I might have. I grew up thinking that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. At the same time, as a girl, I had quickly realized that smart girls needed to be modest and self-deprecating. It was not good, as a girl, if you came across as being “too smart.”

I had always loved school, had enjoyed learning and being challenged. Yet, I had never ever truly been challenged. And that was what I craved more than anything else.

I was afraid that if I chose a “regular” college or university, even one known for its academics, I would still never really be challenged. I had no desire whatsoever to go to a party school. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy partying or having a good time, because I did.

But I wanted to go somewhere where I would be tested to the core, in every way imaginable. Not just in academics.

And West Point seemed to fit the bill. It was not just about academics. It was about so much more. It was about being physically fit and constantly being challenged physically. It was about being a leader and being challenged in mind, body, and spirit on a daily basis. It was about the military and learning basic soldier skills and tactics and character. And it was about academics, and taking courses in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics, and hard sciences. No matter what I majored in, I was still going to get a Bachelor of Science degree because I would have to take so many math, science, and engineering courses. To someone who admired Thomas Jefferson and the concept of the Renaissance Man, this “all around” education appealed to me. When people told me they didn’t see how I could commit myself to something so strictly delineated as the military, I was shocked. On the contrary, I told them, I saw going to West Point as keeping things wide open: I would get to study ALL the disciplines and be physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged. And be doing something worthwhile.

Don’t forget this was during the height of the Cold War, too. I wanted to study Russian and learn about the Soviet Union and international relations. I wanted to be able to put everything I learned to good use and serve my country in a meaningful way. It was important to me that I find a career that would allow me to “make a difference.”

I wanted to run the gauntlet, embark on a hero’s journey, go on a quest for the Holy Grail. I was seeking the ultimate rite of passage. I wanted to be tested to the extreme in all possible areas. At the same time. To me, at that time, only West Point offered this possibility.

And I pursued it relentlessly.

I admired my father immensely. He was the oldest of seven children and came of age in the middle of the Great Depression. He grew up in a small town in rural Nebraska, and no one in his family had ever gone to college before. He was also really smart. He graduated from high school at fifteen.

He won a scholarship to a small men’s college in Indiana, but he still had to work hard at a variety of odd, low-paying jobs to help work his way through. He really wanted to go to one of the service academies – I think because they were free -- and kept applying to both West Point and Annapolis. Finally, after several years of going to school for a year and then working for a year, he won an appointment to West Point.

He did well there, earning stars his final year and graduating high in his class. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then had an impressive career in the steel industry as an industrial engineer.

He was what a lot of men of his generation were – a self-made man. And I admired that tremendously.

It was what I wanted to do, too. I wanted to earn my own way through college, make it on my own. I didn’t want to be “beholden” to anyone. I wanted to prove that I could do it all by myself.

Ironically, because my father had been so successful, I grew up in a very privileged environment. We lived in an affluent suburb, my siblings and I went to private schools, and we belonged to not one, but two country clubs. We were not rich by any stretch of the imagination (especially compared with many of the other families who lived in our community), but we were definitely upper middle class in a way that only the WWII generation seemed to have been able to accomplish.

We did not live in a big, fancy house. We did not own expensive, flashy cars. We did not vacation in Florida or Aspen. The emphasis was on hard work and education and learning.

The child of two parents who came of age during the Depression, I was never hungry, never had to worry where my next meal was going to come from or how we would afford clothes for school. I enjoyed living in a safe, stable community where I was free to roam and explore. I attended a wonderful school with wonderful teachers and took part in a whole slew of sports and extracurricular activities. It was a given that I would go to college.

Was I spoiled?

I was definitely well-provided for. And very lucky. Fortunate to have been born into a family where the father had made so much of himself and done so well. And, afterall, isn’t that what my father had worked so hard to attain? To be able to provide a better life for his children?

I was definitely appreciative of everything I had and the wonderful education I had received. And I had thrived in this environment – doing really well in school; playing sports; participating in drama and journalism and student government; engaging in community service; and earning spending money as a babysitter.

But in order to see myself as a true success, I felt that I needed to work my way through college somehow. On my own. I wanted to be totally responsible for my college education. My parents never implied or expected me to do this; they had saved money for both my sister and me to go to college. But this desire drove me.

I also wanted my college experience to be really hard, really challenging. I wanted to prove my worthiness.

So, to me, West Point almost dropped out of the sky and into my lap. It seemed like a good deal and a great opportunity.

Did I go to West Point because my father went there? Yes and no.

I used to tell people: no, I did not go to West Point because my father went there.

But because he went there, I knew all about West Point and that certainly played a part in my decision. If women had not been suddenly allowed to attend the service academies right around the time I came of college age, obviously I would not have been able to go there.

If my father had not gone to West Point and I had not been familiar with it – and everything else in my life had been the same – I probably would never have even considered going there. I probably would have gone to the best school academically that I could have gotten into. Even if my father said he would refuse to pay the bill there.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Good daughter. Good student. Good soldier. Good wife. Good Army wife.

There’s so much goodness going on it makes me want to hurl.

Good, good, good, good, good.

It’s exhausting, really, to be “good.”

In kind of a soul draining way.

The irony, of course, is that being good is not at all about being good. It is all about pleasing others, or trying to please others, or, more precisely, trying to please others who can never be pleased.

Why, you may ask, was I always so concerned about being “good”? I don’t know. Perhaps part of it is just the way I am. Perhaps part of it is that whole birth order business and I was the oldest child. Perhaps part of it is because I am a woman and women tend to spend a large portion of their lives trying to please other people. Or maybe it is a combination of all three. Or maybe none. I don’t know.

All I know is that I am done being good. I can’t do it anymore. And I have no desire to do it anymore. I have no desire to please anyone, except for maybe myself. (Of course, there is no pleasing myself, either, so it is best to be done being good period.) Trying so hard to be good was always a pointless endeavor anyway. Usually, when I felt the need to please someone, they always ended up being unpleasable.

I would like to be “good” at what I do. But that is different from being a “good” daughter, student, soldier, wife, Army wife, whatever.

You may have noticed that I did not put “good mother” in my list of goodness. This is not because I don’t want to be a good mother, because I do. Rather, it is because, to me, being a good mother is not at all about pleasing anyone. Lord knows I rarely “please” my children; in fact, I think they are the only human beings who have ever said “I hate you!” to me. But I don’t feel a need to “please” them. I do feel a need to be a good mother to them.

And what do I mean by a “good mother”? Surely, no one would ever want to be a “bad mother.” I think I mean that I want my children to feel loved and secure; I want to be there for them. At the same time, I feel it is my job to help them grow into responsible, contributing citizens. Young men who know the difference between right and wrong, who feel compassion for others, who can see beyond themselves. I want them to choose the harder right over the easier wrong. I want them to pursue their passions and talents and interests. I want them to live their lives to the fullest. I don’t ever want them to feel the need to be “good.”

I always wanted to have children. Besides writing, it is the one thing I always knew I wanted to do. In ninth grade English, we had to write our autobiographies. Perhaps an odd thing for fourteen of fifteen year olds to take on, but I imagine it had something to do with our having just read David Copperfield. “I am born…,” etc. We had three different assignments. The first was to write about our past, the second was to write about important people in our lives, and the third was to write about our futures. I remember my future essay was a narrative poem of sorts. It had something to do with sitting on a sun-warmed rock and wanting to write and wanting to have children. Oy vey! It was heartfelt, at any rate. My point is that even at fifteen I knew that I wanted to have children. I wanted to be a mother.

I love being a mother. My children mean more than life itself to me. At the same time, being a mother is definitely the most difficult thing I have ever done. Being in the Army was a piece of cake, compared to being a mother. Being a mother is challenging, rewarding, hair-raising, hair-graying, exhausting, demanding, funny, sad, scary, and fun. I would not trade it for anything in the world.

I have no idea if I am a good mother or not. All I know is that I do the best that I can. And I love my children more than I have ever loved any other human beings period. I am also a very human mother. I lose my patience, I lose my temper, I yell. I get frustrated, angry, and sad. I make mistakes. Sometimes I think I do things right.

It’s hard to be a mother, regardless of what age your kids are. Some ages are more physically demanding than others. Like that whole baby, toddler, diaper stage. Others are more emotionally and spiritually demanding. Like the teen years. Which fill a mother’s soul with angst and worry.

My life at West Point was very much driven by my desire to be “good.” To please my father, my squad leader, my platoon leader, my company commander, my tactical officer, my professors, any authority figure really. Ironically, I ended up being “good” in the real sense of the word as a student, as a cadet, as a leader. But they were only by-products of my desire to be “good.” And they came at a huge price.

Maybe I can take something from what I have learned about the futility of being “good” and help my children learn not to devote their lives to being “good.” But rather to being good persons who do good things. Then maybe I will have been a good mother.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


It is with great humiliation that I confide to you that during M16 qualification in Beast I was a bolo. (“Bolo” is the Spanish word for “big fucking loser.”)

At the M16 range, silhouette targets pop up at varying distances, and you are supposed to shoot them, either from a standing position in a foxhole or a prone position on the ground, sandbags propping up your rifle in either case. If you hit the targets, you get points or credit or something that gives you a score. A really high score means that you are an “expert marksman.” A passing score means you are a “marksman.” And a failing score means you are – yep, you guessed it – a “bolo.” Needless-to-say, you don’t want to be a bolo.

I suppose the M16 firing range is designed to simulate enemy soldiers leaping up willy nilly on the battlefield while you stand or lie in a stationary defensive position. And none of these enemy soldiers, interestingly, is firing at you. Or calling in artillery fire. Or doing much of anything besides popping up conveniently so you can shoot at them.

In real life, soldiers are notorious for not firing their weapons in battle. Not for missing their targets. Simply not firing their weapons period. I am not sure why exactly that is. I imagine it has something to do with their being scared shitless. Frankly, I envision inexperienced soldiers as being more likely to fire wildly. Just firing, firing, firing and hoping they hit something before it hits them.

I am not sure what traits a good marksman possesses – a steady hand, 20/20 eyesight, good hand-eye coordination, a killer instinct? – but apparently I possessed none of them. Frankly, that day during Beast, I think my inability to hit targets had more to do with the fact that I simply couldn’t see them. I never had any trouble qualifying at subsequent ranges, only during Beast. And at Beast I was wearing my new Army TEDs, through which I had a hard time seeing much of anything unless it was directly in front of me.

TED is an acronym for “tactical eye device.” The military does not actually call Army-issue glasses TEDs. Only soldiers call them TEDs, or BC (birth control) glasses. TEDs had thick black plastic frames which would have made even Johnny Depp or Uma Thurman look butt ugly.

We were issued our TEDs at the beginning of Beast and told that we could not wear contacts or civilian glasses during Basic Training. The problem with this was that, like with any new pair of glasses when you have a strong prescription, it takes a while for you to get used to them. During Beast there wasn’t time to get used to anything. Thus, those of us with poor eyesight and donning TEDs suddenly found ourselves stumbling up and down stairs, lacking peripheral vision, and unable to see much of anything unless we were looking directly at it. Not really conducive for sniper practice.

But let’s not make excuses. A new cadet does not make excuses. “No excuse, sir!” The bottom line was that we were soldiers and West Point cadets, and we were supposed to be crack marksmen. Period. Given the nature of our profession, firing a weapon effectively was probably a good skill to have.

No matter that I hate guns. I hate violence. I hate what guns do. I hate the sound they make. The worst sound I ever heard was that of a tank gun going off while I was inside the tank. Being inside a tank is bad enough; there isn’t much space to move around in period. Add a few more soldiers and a giant sabot round, and it’s downright claustrophobic. Add the smoke and sound and confusion of battle, and it becomes unimaginably awful.

I don’t like weapons. I don’t like holding them, carrying them, firing them, disassembling them, reassembling them, cleaning them. Any of it. None of it. Maybe that should have been an indicator that maybe I shouldn’t become a soldier.

But being a soldier involves a lot more than firing an M16. Or shooting at people. Yet it is certainly a task that every soldier should be able to perform and be able to perform effectively.

And it was one I was willing to undertake. Along with other activities of mass destruction. I liked lobbing a live hand grenade, even though I wasn’t very good at it, and listening to the boom sound it made. I felt immense satisfaction when I adjusted fire on the artillery range and the round blew a rusted out Volkswagen Bug to smithereens, much to the amazement of our NCO instructor.

I never associated the violence of our training with actually killing or wounding people. I don’t think many soldiers do. In order to kill people, the less personal it is, the better. And the more you hate your enemy, the better. And the more you are shooting at someone else to prevent them from shooting at you or your buddies, the better.

In the end, I don’t want soldiers ever to have to fire weapons at other people. But the fact of the matter is that they will. And if they have to, then I want them to be able to do it well. To paraphrase, George S. Patton, Jr., I want them to get that other poor dumb bastard before that poor dumb bastard gets them.

The only problem with that is that all those poor dumb bastards are people with mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and friends.

Friday, July 21, 2006

"Move out! Move out! Move out!"

Just as I want you to envision what we were wearing at West Point, I also want you to have a good visual of how we moved from Point A to Point B.

Or from West Point A to West Point B. As the case may be.

You might be thinking that we… walked.

Logical enough.

But you would be grossly mistaken.

New cadets don’t “walk.” They march or they run. They always “move out.”

During Beast, we pretty much marched everywhere. Be it as a company, a platoon, or our 10-12 man squads. If we were in a hurry, we might “double time,” which basically means we “jogged” in formation.

A lot of our Beast training was conducted at the squad level. And we would march in a single file, our Firstie squad leader calling cadence. The movie Stripes had recently come out, and our squad leader was partial to “Doo-Ah-Diddy.” That was not an official Army cadence. But then again, not many of them were; most cadences were R or even X rated. (“I wish all the ladies/were pies on a shelf/ And I was the baker/cuz I’d eat ‘em all myself.”) You get the idea.

If we were going somewhere alone as new cadets, say, for example, from our room to the bathroom, we had to “ping.” Ping meant you had to walk 120 steps per minute, your arms pumping wildly, so that it looked like you were moving out with a purpose. If it didn’t look like you were moving fast enough, an upperclassman would yell after you, “Move out, new cadet! Move out!” And you damned well better move out.

You had to look directly in front of you wherever you were going; you could not “gaze around.” If it looked like you didn’t know where you were going, you would be hazed for not knowing where you were going. (Not a good thing.)

If you were outside, as long as you were in the cadet area, you had to ping. There were well-delineated boundaries. Within these boundaries, you had to ping. Only outside of those boundaries were you allowed to “fall out,” or walk like a semi-normal human being. Very rarely during Beast did we get to go outside the cadet area when we weren’t in formation. And walking normally did not mean meandering or lollygagging. You were still supposed to move out with a purpose at all times.

If you were pinging across the area and you had to change direction, you would have to do so… distinctly. If you were turning a corner, you had to “square the corner” – i.e., make an abrupt 90 degree angle turning movement.

If you were going up or down stairs, you had to hug the outside railing and lift your forearms so they were parallel to the ground. As you rounded the corners of the stairwell, there was no “rounding” going on. No, no, no. That’s right, you had to square the corner.

Inside the hallways of the barracks, you had to ping along the inner wall. I cannot tell you how many new cadets got scratch marks on their watches from having them scrape against the wall!

“Move out, new cadet! Move out!”

Not only did we have to ping during Beast, we also had to ping for most of plebe year. There may have been a point after which we didn’t have to ping – say, late in the spring – but I honestly don’t remember. All I remember from plebe year is pinging, pinging, pinging everywhere I went. And upperclassmen calling after me: “Move out! Move out! Move out!”

We did learn, eventually, that if you pumped your arms fast enough, it always “looked” like you were moving out fast enough. Even if you were moving fast enough but you weren’t pumping your arms hard enough, upperclassmen were still wont to stop you. So, the secret to pinging was: pump your arms furiously.

I never realized that pinging was odd until I came back to West Point the fall of my Yearling (sophomore) year and saw new plebes pinging across the area. I could not get over how absolutely, totally, positively ridiculous they looked. “Oh, my God,” I thought to myself, “THAT is what I looked like!”

It is one thing to move out with a purpose, quite another to “ping.”

It is amazing really, when you are going through something and all your peers are going through exactly the same thing, how “normal” it all seems. Until you get some distance. And then it looks as totally whacked out as it really is.

I don’t think plebes ping anymore. In fact, I am almost positive they don’t. I think they still have to move out with a purpose, though.

At least… I hope so.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

White Tornado

About halfway through Beast, on a Sunday afternoon, new cadets are granted quarters’ visitation privileges for the first time. In groups of three or four, new cadets are matched up with specific families of officers or senior enlisted soldiers who live on post in government quarters. It is a chance to visit a “home” where real people live, and relax for a few hours. Get away from the barracks and the upperclassmen and Beast. And socialize. And, most importantly, EAT.

I remember there being LOTS of Doritos and homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies and Coke. It was like dying and going to heaven. We stuffed ourselves ‘til we couldn’t stuff any more in.

We stuffed ourselves partly because we were starving. The upperclassmen hardly let us eat at mealtimes, and we weren’t allowed any pogey bait. Plus, we were under constant stress and were burning up a ton of calories to boot. (Males of this age group eat loads of food anyway, even when they get three square meals a day. But I can tell you we female cadets were enjoying every moment of this orgasmic snack fest as well!)

We hadn’t had ANY junk food since before Beast and who knew when we might get some again. And then, in the end, we stuffed ourselves because who knew when we might get to eat again period.

Little did we know -- naïve, unsuspecting fools that we were -- of a time-honored West Point phenomenon known as… the White Tornado.

We had to return to the barracks from quarters’ visitation in time for Sunday evening dinner. None of us was in the least bit hungry, but mealtime during Beast rarely had very much to do with food and eating, anyway. All of our meals during Beast were mandatory. We had dinner formation and then marched into the Mess Hall for dinner. The menu was Virginia ham slices, baked sweet potatoes, and green beans. Nothing great about that. We didn’t care in the least if the upperclassmen did not let us eat even one bite after we had gotten our fill of sugar and junk and soda.

Oh, how we woefully underestimated the upperclassmen and the level of sadism that West Point often tended to bring out, especially under the guise of “tradition.”

As soon as we were seated, the upperclassmen informed us that we were in for a “real” treat. They said they hoped we had enjoyed our plebe privileges and that we had gotten our fill of junk food. But… they hoped we weren’t too full. Because tonight was a… WHITE TORNADO!!!

That meant we had to eat EVERYTHING on the tables. Right now!!! Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up! There could be NO leftovers. Not only did we have to eat all the ham, all the sweet potatoes, and all the green beans, we also had to consume all the condiments that happened to be on the table as well. They asked for volunteers to take “silver bullets,” which meant new cadets had to down huge spoonfuls of peanut butter, and someone at each table had to “validate” the hot sauce – i.e., drink the entire bottle of Tabasco.

All hell had broken loose in the Mess Hall. There were no rules, no manners, just a bunch of crazed new cadets eating like wild hogs. Upperclassmen were yelling at us, telling us to eat more, go faster, faster, faster. Quick! We were running out of time. One new cadet at my table was instructed to eat the entire tray of sweet potatoes. Which he did. He then proceeded to puke them all right back up, into the stainless steel serving tray he held between his two hands.

I was horrified. This was disgusting and sadistic and totally grossed me out. A lot of the male new cadets seemed to really be getting into it, regardless of how not-hungry they might be. It was like a dare, a game. They would shovel all this food in, by God! Or die trying. I, on the other hand, was scared shitless. I had enough control issues with food as it was. The last thing I wanted was be FORCED to eat food I did not want to eat. I silently vowed that NO ONE was going to make me eat anything I didn’t want to eat. Thankfully, the entire Mess Hall was such an out of control zoo and male new cadets were volunteering left and right to eat the most outrageous things that no one paid much attention to little old me.

I thought that the upperclassmen forcing us to eat when they knew we were all full was even worse than not letting us eat when we were hungry. It was sick and perverted. And wrong. Using food as a means of hazing was wrong. This was not funny. It was not fun. It was gross.

White Tornadoes were not “officially” sanctioned, of course. After our Beast, they were officially banned. One of my classmates was relieved of his Company Command three years later when he authorized a White Tornado for the new cadets in his unit. And he was a good guy. Not at all a sadist or a jerk. So, why did he let them do it?

White Tornadoes were seen as a hallowed tradition, a right of passage for Cadet Basic Training. If you didn’t experience a White Tornado during your Beast, then you somehow had a lesser experience. You hadn’t really had a “real” Beast Barracks. You had “gotten over.” I have no idea when White Tornadoes originated or how long they went on and were a “tradition.” West Point is full of all sorts of weird “traditions,” some more whacked out than others. And in my opinion, White Tornadoes were one of the more whacked out traditions.

The Corps has” is an expression Old Grads use to describe the experiences of younger classes. From their perspectives, standards have eased considerably and cadets these days have things much easier than they ever did. Old Grads are always convinced that the place is more or less going to hell in a handbasket. The Corps has… gotten easier, lost it, gone to the dogs, been overrun by pussies and, even worse, women. Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The dress off

Not only did we have to wear many different uniforms at West Point, we had to wear them all the right way. Attention to detail was paramount.

Our shoes had to be highly spit-shined with the outside edges of the soles appropriately blackened. Our brass belt buckles had to glisten with a metallic sheen. New cadets quickly become intimately familiar with Kiwi shoe polish, edge dressing, and Brasso. Shining shoes becomes second nature, and every cadet knows some little trick of the trade to make his or her shoes shine better. Whether it actually works or not.

Our nametags, when we wore them, had to go in specific places and be perfectly aligned. Any brass or rank insignia or military badges or ribbons we might be entitled to wear had to go in very specific locations and be perfectly aligned. We had manuals that told us where all of these items went on different uniforms, and we were issued small rulers to help us make sure we were in compliance.

The brass buttons on all of our coats had the USMA crest on them. We were to ensure that all buttons aligned so that the USMA crest was straight up and down.

Gig lines were de rigueur. This meant cadets had to have one straight line up and down. The line on their shirts where they buttoned in the front had to align with the outer edge of their belt buckles had to align with the line created where their trousers zippered up. This line could not be off, even a fraction of an inch. Or you would be hazed mercilessly.

Most people do not even think about this sort of thing when they get dressed. Cadets obsess about them. And these seemingly quirky details all became second nature. Very quickly.

The most unusual requirement, however, was the dress off. In any uniform that entailed wearing a shirt tucked into trousers, we had to have a dress off. A tight dress off. This meant your shirt had to fit to the shape of your body and not be the least bit loose or baggy. To achieve this state, you would have to grab any loose folds of fabric on each side of the shirt as you were wearing it and pull them back so they folded behind you. You would then fasten your pants and belt so that the folds, the dress off, would stay as tight as possible. Since shirts tend to become loose as you move around, you would have to give yourself a dress off periodically throughout the day.

The best dress offs came from someone else standing behind you and pulling the shirt back for you while you then fastened your trousers and belt. It was not uncommon for coed new cadets or plebes to knock on one another’s doors and ask for a dress off. Male and female cadets would think nothing of undoing their belts and trousers so a classmate could give them a dress off. Roommates gave each other dress offs without even asking. It was ingrained.

New cadets would get hazed unmercifully if they didn’t have good dress offs. We even had to give each other dress offs when we were wearing Gym Alpha. The loose fabric of the white t-shirts had to be pulled back and tucked tightly into our shorts. It looked rather ridiculous, but we never questioned it. We were told to have dress offs, and we did what we were told. It was not worth getting hazed for having a poor or non-existent dress off.

The only time we didn’t have to worry about a dress off was when we were wearing dress gray or full dress. At all other times, we were expected to have dress offs. Even if you were wearing an authorized cadet sweater over your shirt, if you were a plebe, you were expected to have a dress off underneath.

By the time you became an upperclassman giving yourself a good, tight dress off was second nature. It was just a part of how you dressed yourself. You did suddenly become concerned about making sure all plebes you encountered had good dress offs, though.

I have never seen a dress off anywhere but at West Point. I suppose it may exist elsewhere, perhaps at some of the other service academies. But I have never heard about it.

I do not give myself a dress off today. I think it is kind of weird actually. In fact, sometimes I will pull my shirts out more from my pants and make them even looser. Just because I can.

But I insist on making sure my gig line is one straight up and down line. I would never go anywhere if my gig line weren’t aligned properly.

And I always notice when other people’s gig lines are off. Although I realize that they probably do not even know what a gig line is. I don’t ever tell them their gig line is off, though. That would be weird.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The uniform is...

No discussion of West Point would be complete without an explanation of what cadets wear.

(I am not sure that a male graduate of the U.S. Military Academy would ever write that sentence. I am a bit surprised that I am writing it, but as I cover different episodes at West Point I am envisioning in my mind’s eye what we were all wearing. Not because I am a fashionista, but rather because that is what I see. I see cadets wearing whatever uniforms we happened to be wearing at the time. If readers are unfamiliar with West Point, I have to wonder, what on earth do they imagine us to be wearing???? What exactly do they see in their minds’ eye? Because I would like readers to have as accurate a picture as possible, I am taking a time-out to present this added information.)

It is astounding, really, to think of how many different uniforms we had to wear as cadets.

The very first uniform we donned, soon after our arrival on R-Day, was Gym Alpha. Why it was called this is beyond me; there was no Gym Bravo or Gym Charlie. But, as we were soon to learn, both West Point and the Army have strange names and acronyms for just about everything.

Gym Alpha (or “Gym A,” for short) consisted of a white t-shirt with the USMA crest and black shorts with yellow piping. (Eventually, we would be issued Gym Alpha shirts with our last names printed above the emblem.) On R-Day we wore this get up with black socks and black low quarter shoes. This is the only time, thank God, we would do this. Normally, we wore white socks and athletic shoes with Gym Alpha. This was the uniform we wore for PT, mass athletics, gym class, and intramurals. We could also wear it to study in at night in the barracks; it was sort of lounge wear for plebes. We were also issued form-fitting gray sweatpants and USMA sweatshirts to wear over Gym Alpha when the weather got cooler.

The second uniform we donned on R-Day was “white over gray.” Short-sleeved white button down shirts with gray epaulets worn with traditional cadet gray trousers (“gray trow”), black belts, black socks, and black low quarters. Eventually we would be issued white service caps to wear with this uniform, but during Beast new cadets wear gray service caps to distinguish them from the upperclass cadre. (During Beast, we also had to salute the upperclass cadre. They told us, “Whenever you see a white hat, salute.” The problem with this directive was that they didn’t say anything about green hats. One day the Supe walked all the way across North Area and not a single new cadet saluted him. The Supe is a three star general. Just about everyone in the Army – except for other three star generals and four star generals – salutes him. We quickly learned to salute not only the Supe, but all Army officers, as they all woefully outranked us.)

During our Oath of Allegiance ceremony, I don’t think we wore any hats. We hadn’t been issued them yet. We may have worn white gloves.

Cadets wear white gloves a lot – for parades, during drill, and for certain ceremonial and guard duties. We had lots of pairs of white gloves, and we had to make sure we always had at least one clean pair available on standby. You never knew when a clean pair of white cotton gloves might come in handy.

For Cadet Basic Training, our main training uniform was green fatigues and combat boots. We were soldiers going through basic training, albeit the West Point way, and we had to learn all the basic soldiering skills that new Army recruits learn. Green fatigues were also the normal everyday work uniform for soldiers in the regular Army. During our time at West Point, the Army switched from green fatigues to the camouflage Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs), and we would receive our own BDUs at the end of Yearling year before we went out into the real Army on summer training missions.

At West Point, we dressed for dinner. We might be combat soldiers, but we were also gentlemen, goddamnit. While we wore fatigues all day long during Beast, the uniform for dinner was white over gray.

Once the academic year began, we put away our combat boots and fatigues. Our everyday uniform was called, unimaginatively, “as for class.” This consisted of short-sleeved (during fall and spring) and long-sleeved (during winter) dark gray button down shirts with epaulets and the ubiquitous gray trousers. We donned gray garrison caps in fall and spring and our gray service caps in winter.

During the winter months when we dressed for dinner or attended church or evening lectures, we wore the infamous Dress Gray – a gray wool tunic jacket with a priest-like black collar over gray trousers. As part of this uniform, we actually had to wear starched white collars and starched white cuffs with USMA cuff links. This was not a particularly comfortable uniform. It made you stand and sit ramrod straight, which I suppose was the intent.

For parades and formal occasions, like balls and graduation, we wore Full Dress (or FD), the elaborate gray wool coat with tails and ball-shaped brass buttons down the front. During spring, summer, or early fall, we wore FD over white; during winter, FD over gray.

During parades we also wore starched white cross belts with a highly polished brass breastplate and a starched white waist belt with a ceremonial black ammo pouch and a scabbarded bayonet. When cadets parade, they carry M14 rifles with stainless steel ceremonial bayonets attached.

They also wear “tarbuckets,” or black shakos with the USMA crest. While all underclassmen wear cattail-like attachments, Firsties wear feather plumes. Firsties also get to wear USMA sabers and saber belts, and they have to master a whole elaborate saber manual to replace the more mundane manual of arms.

We were issued a wide array of outerwear to go with all of these different uniforms: gray plastic raincoats, gray jackets to wear in Spring and Fall, short gray wool overcoats, long gray wool overcoats with capes (these are what you see cadets wearing during the march on before the Army/Navy football game), and black wool parkas with hoods. Whenever we traveled away from West Point in uniform and had to wear coats, we had to wear the Long Overcoat with the cape pinned back. Long overcoats are very heavy and quickly become extremely uncomfortable. None of the cadet-issue outerwear was particularly warm, which, given the nature of cold, windy winters along the Hudson River, was unfortunate.

In addition to our regular uniforms, we also had the pseudo-civilian blazer uniform. This was only for upperclass cadets. For male cadets, this meant gray trousers, white shirt, black and gold tie, and black blazer with class crest. For female cadets, it was the same, except we had gray skirts and USMA scarves instead of ties. We got to wear black patent leather pumps and panty hose. Black London Fog raincoats completed the ensemble for both male and female cadets.

I’m not sure why, but female cadets were also issued Dress Mess – long black skirt, white shirt, short white jacket, and black cummerbund. You pretty much looked like Julie from “Love Boat” in this get up. Dress Mess was for formal occasions like dinings-in or balls, which West Point called “formal hops.” (A dance of any sort at West Point was called a “hop,” as in “Let’s go to the hop!”)

We also had cadet pajamas, cadet robes (both summer and winter weight), cadet sweaters, and cadet swimsuits. We even had cadet flip-flops to wear to and from the shower.

Learning HOW to wear all of these different uniforms and knowing WHEN you were supposed to wear each one were all part of our cadet indoctrination, and, incredibly, it all quickly became second nature.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The spirit of the bayonet is to kill

Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow!”

So chant the new cadets as they go through the thrusting motions of bayonet training.

They have forsaken cadet gray for the Army green of combat soldiers. They wear green fatigues, black combat boots, steel pot helmets, and web belts, the uniform of the Vietnam era. It will be another year before West Point transitions to the looser fitting camouflage BDUs. They carry M16s, the GI rifle of the Vietnam era which is still used today. It comes equipped with bayonets. Who knew?

Bayonet training conjures up images from the Civil War or All Quiet on the Western Front, where soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the muddy trenches of Western Europe during the war to end all wars. How could bayonets possibly have a place in late 20th century warfare?

There were no indications that these cadets found bayonet training in anyway anachronistic. Or grisly. They were new cadets. They did what they were told, marched to whichever training they were told to march to, and accomplished the mission. They might make a lot of mistakes, but not because they were recalcitrant or rebellious. These new cadets were gung ho, motivated, overachieving. They wanted to serve their country. If West Point thought they needed to have bayonet training, well, then they needed to have bayonet training.

The spirit of the bayonet is to kill!”

They actually had to say this, and say it they did. Loudly and enthusiastically. Clearly, the bayonet, if it ever had to be used, would be the last weapon of choice. You would have to be in a really dire situation to have to resort to using a bayonet. It meant you were out of ammunition and your rifle was a useless stick of steel. It meant that the enemy had overrun your position and was now standing over you. Of course, it kind of implied that your enemy must be out of ammunition, too, and had no backup or artillery fire coming in, or else why wouldn’t they just shoot you and be done with it? Oh, sure, there were probably a whole variety of Hollywood war movie scenarios you could come up with which might convey situations where you might have to use a bayonet. Frankly, having the presence of mind to even stick your bayonet onto the end of your weapon at the time of need worried me more. I had been toting my M16 around for weeks and hadn’t even realized that it harbored a bayonet.

I don’t think the point of bayonet training (excuse the pun) was to prepare us for hand-to-hand combat of last resort. I think it was an exercise, to try to instill within us the spirit of the warrior. To make us more assertive, more aggressive, more passionate. Combat was a serious business and we needed to take it seriously as future combat officers (not that women were allowed to serve in a “combat role,” but at least we would be trained that way at West Point).

If confronted head on by an enemy soldier whose clear intent was to kill me if I did not kill him first, I would kill him. Or die trying. I had little doubt of that. Not that I seriously contemplated it as I stood there in formation thrusting and parrying with air.

If this interaction were to happen today and somehow involve my protecting my children – and I can’t imagine how it would – I would kill him in a heartbeat, with no afterthought or remorse.

For bayonet training, we had marched down to Target Hill Field, which was down below Ike Hall, along the river, near the Two Mile Run Course and the sewage treatment plant. I am sure we conducted bayonet training out of the immediate view of tourists to West Point for PC reasons, not that “PC” was even a term then. The Vietnam War had not ended all that long ago really, and West Point did not wish to convey to the public that we were baby killers.

How ironic then that while we were going through the motions of bayonet training in the hot July sun, from somewhere a class of preschoolers had materialized and were hanging on the chain link fence watching us, goggle-eyed. I was horrified. What kind of teacher or day care worker would allow three and four year olds to observe this kind of violent training? Here we were chanting “Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow!” and stabbing the air with our bayonets while small children looked on. I found it immensely disturbing but kept thrusting and shouting as I had been instructed.

To me, although what we were doing was infinitely serious, it was also a game of sorts. I could play the game, I could go through the motions and go through them passionately. I was determined to handle whatever West Point and the cadet cadre could throw at me, no matter how ridiculous or disturbing it might be. Beast was supposed to be an intense, highly stressful baptism of fire that would transform us from civilians into soldiers and West Point cadets in six or seven short, but, oh, so long, weeks. At the end of Beast, I would be a better person. I would be a real cadet.

As I kept thrusting my bayonet forward and to the side and upwards and downwards, shouting epithets of blood and violence all the while, I was getting rid of pent up energy and frustration, but I was not truly imagining myself stabbing someone through the gut with my pointed spear of steel. If I ever had to do it, I was sure that I would rise to the occasion, but I didn’t want to have to think about it. Having those little kids standing there made me have to think about it, even if only for a few moments.

During our time as cadets, we would be taught how to kill: how to fire M16s, shoot just about every weapon system in the U.S. inventory, throw hand grenades, and call for fire. We would be taught about war, both in philosophy where we would discuss “just” and “unjust” wars and in military art where we would study warfare throughout the ages, but I don’t remember ever having any training or serious discussion about violence and killing. Perhaps “real men” don’t talk about such things.

To say that West Point produces trained killers would be a gross misrepresentation. West Point does strive to train and prepare cadets for the rigors of combat. It does not do so because Army leaders should be bloodthirsty, crave violence, and enjoy killing people. Rather, it does so because its mission is to produce professional military officers trained to lead soldiers anywhere, and in combat, if need be.

To lead soldiers in combat, future officers need to learn the basic skills of the trade, which include mastering the use of basic weapons systems, tactics, map reading, and land navigation. Officers need to be tactically and technically proficient. Their job then becomes to ensure that their soldiers are well-trained, fit, and ready for battle – or whatever mission they might encounter.

Mature and professional soldiers do not want war. They do not want to kill people. They are trained to accomplish combat missions, which includes engaging hostile enemies with weapons. Thus, they want to be as good at their jobs as they can possibly be, so they can accomplish the mission as quickly as possible, with as few casualties as possible, especially to their own comrades.

Soldiers are realists. They see war as an inevitable evil that occurs when men run out of diplomatic and other options. It is not the soldier’s job to make policy. It is the soldier’s job to follow orders, to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. Soldiers can only hope and pray that those policy decisions are just and sound.

I have never met any soldier who wanted to go to war. I would be very worried indeed if I did.

If our soldiers go to war, then I want them to be well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led. Because well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led soldiers have a much greater chance of accomplishing the mission and surviving than those who are not. War is never an ideal situation; it is a terrible, awful, horrible thing. And it always involves death and destruction.

It was William Tecumseh Sherman, who led the Union Army’s infamous March to the Sea during the Civil War, who said: “There is many a boy who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"In cadence, EXERCISE!"

It’s 5:30 a.m. The theme song from the movie Patton reverberates off the gray granite walls of the barracks and Washington Hall, motivational music for the new cadets in Beast Barracks.

Cadets wearing Gym Alpha and blue Etonic running shoes march off to various grassy locations around the Plain. Platforms are strategically positioned for cadre members to mount and lead the stretching and calisthenics phases of PT.

Cadre members demonstrate (in mirror image movements) such exercises as the push-up, the deep knee bend (no longer allowed as it causes serious knee problems), and the side-straddle hop (jumping jacks). Initially, new cadets mimic the cadre members’ every move as they learn to perform each exercise “by the numbers.” Before they know it, they are ready to perform X number of repetitions of each exercise in unison, loudly calling out the step numbers and the repetitions. In between exercises, new cadets are not lollygagging around or smoking and joking. Rather, they are either at the position of attention or, at the very least, parade rest, all eyes on the cadre member standing up on the platform.

After announcing the name of each exercise and instructing new cadets to get into the starting position (for the push-up, for example, that would be the “front leaning rest”), the cadre member commands: “In cadence, EXERCISE!”

Going down, all of the cadets shout, “One!” Pushing back up, they shout, “Two!” Going down again, “Three!” And then pushing up once more to complete one official repetition of the push-up (but two actual push-ups), they all shout a much louder, “ONE!” to signify the repetition number. And so on. Until they have done the requisite number of repetitions and the cadre member commands them to “HALT!” If they are doing the push-up, the new cadets will still be in the front leaning rest, so the cadre member commands: “Position of attention, MOVE!” And move they do, hopping up to assume the position of attention and wait for the instructor to announce the next exercise.

Following a rousing round of calisthenics in the wet early morning grass, the new cadets go for a run, usually 2-3 miles, in formation, along the many roads that criss cross the West Point post. Cadets are broken down into basic ability groups, so the fastest runners get a challenge and the slower runners have a good chance of completing the runs. (When I say slower runners, though, we are not talking slackers. You have to be in really good shape just to get into West Point.)

Falling out of a run is seriously frowned upon and discouraged. All cadets are expected to be in tip-top physical condition upon reporting to West Point. All of the new cadets had to pass a Physical Aptitude Exam, which consisted of a shuttle run, standing long jump, overhand basketball throw, and pull-ups (males)/flexed arm hang (females), as part of the complex admissions process, and most of them played varsity level sports in high school. West Point cadets are, by and large, in really good shape. Those who aren’t in good enough shape soon will be, or else they will wash out.

West Point is an institution that prides itself on physical prowess of the macho, chest-thumping variety. It should come as no real surprise then that the area in which female cadets have the most difficulty being accepted is the physical.

There are no two ways about it: physiologically, men and women are very different. Men are usually taller, have more muscle mass, and tend to be stronger, especially when it comes to upper body strength. A female cadet may be in top-notch physical condition, but she will be hard pressed to do as many pushups or run as fast as the average male cadet.

What seem like normal, challenging expectations for the 18-25 year old male cohort are not, by and large, going to be the normal, challenging expectations for 18-25 year old females, no matter how in-shape they are. Sure, there will be some females who can do a really impressive number of push-ups or run fast enough to hang with the fast group -- and females can actually outperform males in sit-ups – but your average female cadet is going to do fewer push-ups and run the two mile run test slower than the average male cadet. Which isn’t to say there aren’t a percentage of male cadets at the bottom of the running scale, because there are.

Still, if you are doing a group formation run, unless the pace is slower than that which most males feel comfortable with, you may well see a certain number of female cadets dropping back and ultimately falling out. (You may see a few male cadets doing so as well, but they will really catch hell.) This problem is partially dealt with by breaking cadets up into ability groups and then placing the smaller, shorter-legged women in the front of the formation and the taller, longer-legged males in the back. Still, formation runs tend to be slower than male cadets think they should be, and they blame this “lowering of standards” on the presence of women. They fail to see that formation runs aren’t so much about getting and staying in good physical shape as they are about unit cohesion and camaraderie.

The Army, and male cadets in particular, prize physical prowess. Thus, it is with disdain and derision that most male cadets assess the physical capabilities of female cadets. Female cadets are slower, not as strong – thus, they are weaker. And inferior.

They are not warriors.

And West Point is all about warriors and being trained for combat.

Ironically, speaking from my own experience and observations of other women at West Point, female cadets tend to work out more often and more diligently on their own time than male cadets do. Sure, there are plenty of male cadets who work out and go for runs around post, but percentage-wise I would argue that female cadets put in more time and effort to stay in shape for the semi-annual PT tests than male cadets do. (Keep in mind that all cadets have to take PE throughout the academic year and participate in intramural sports if they aren’t playing a corps squad or club squad sport. We must not forget that “upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds of victory.” [Douglas MacArthur]).

I would say female cadets run and work out more on their own limited free time because they are so worried about “making the grade” and doing the best that they can on PT tests. They are also often worried about their weight, but then that is another topic entirely.

At West Point, I was an average athlete, or perhaps an average female athlete and thus a below average athlete overall. In high school, I had always been very athletic and participated in a different sport each season, but I was no star athlete. I had worked very hard to get into shape for West Point, lifting weights, doing push-ups and sit-ups, and going for long runs.

At West Point, I was really good at some things, like swimming, gymnastics, and the OC (Indoor Obstacle Course), while I was terrible at other things, like running two miles at a fast pace in combat boots. I spent A LOT of my free time out running. But I was still never very good at it.

I didn’t realize until I got out into the real Army that the West Point physical fitness standards were significantly higher than the Army standards. When I got to my first unit as a lieutenant, I was a PT stud muffin! I always maxed or nearly maxed the PT test and had a reputation for being in really good shape. As a leader, I felt it was important to lead by example, and I wanted to make sure that my soldiers were “being all they could be.” I ran a remedial PT program for soldiers (male and female) who were having trouble passing the PT test.

So, maybe it was a good thing that the standards at West Point were so tough. It helped make sure that I was in far better shape than I technically needed to be. And maybe my having had such difficulty meeting physical fitness standards at West Point made me more empathetic and encouraging of my soldiers.

At the same time, I think these same goals could be accomplished by maintaining tough standards without making female cadets feel they are physically inferior because they are women. And it is not a healthy atmosphere when male cadets are encouraged to believe that female cadets who can’t run as fast or do as many push-ups are inferior to male cadets. These same male cadets will one day be male officers in an Army that has both male and female soldiers.

There is a whole lot more to good physical fitness than just doing push-ups and sit-ups and running two miles. In addition, one must also consider the level of effort required to do each of these tested activities. Male cadets could not seem to grasp that the standards set for the female cadets required the same (or higher) level of effort than the standards set for male cadets. Men and women are different; most men are faster and stronger than most women. That is just the way it is.

If a job out in the Army requires a soldier to lift heavy weights on a regular basis – like loading ammunition rounds in a tank – and a female soldier cannot do that task, then she shouldn’t fill that job. If she can do it, then she should be allowed to. Likewise, if a male soldier cannot do it (and trust me, there are many male soldiers who cannot perform certain key tasks that require lots of strength), then he should not be allowed to do that job, either.

Not all jobs in the Army require brute strength and fast running abilities. In fact, few do. Infantry, armor, and Special Forces are about the only ones that come to my mind. All soldiers should be in good physical condition because their jobs under normal peacetime, training conditions incur stress, long hours, and plenty of mental and physical challenge and soldiers should always be prepared to deploy and be involved in a combat situation.

If a soldier, male or female, is capable of doing a particular job, whatever it may be, then he or she should be allowed to do it. And do it well.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Sticks and stones





Can you imagine being called these names in the course of a day? Not because you were any of them. Or had even done anything to justify the displeasure of others, as crass and inappropriate as their language might be. But simply because you were a woman. Specifically, a woman at West Point.

The women in the Class of 1980, the first class at West Point to include women, certainly bore the brunt of this verbal abuse. I can only imagine their four years at West Point as a hellish nightmare. Some, I think, stayed just to prove they could stick it out. Which probably isn’t the best reason to stay at West Point. I am not here to criticize, in any way, those first women at West Point. To me, they exhibited a level of courage, fortitude, perseverance, and spirit that is to be admired by all subsequent classes of women. They paved the way for the rest of us.

While I was at West Point, not all male cadets called women names or treated them with derision and disgust. But there were some who did and did it well. And, ultimately, all it takes is one misogynist asshole in your midst to make your daily life unpleasant, especially when his behavior is tolerated, or at least overlooked, by all the others.

Some female cadets had far worse experiences than others, to be sure. For example, some had the misfortune of being plebes in Company B-1 (Boys One), where they were taunted, mistreated, and hazed by future Army officers simply for being women. Others, who landed prominent leadership positions in the Corps as Firsties – Company, Battalion, or Regimental Commanders or Brigade Staff officers, were more in the limelight and thus became the target of women-haters. Many of these women can recount taunts and name-calling from the sidelines as they led their units in pass-in-review on the Plain.

In 1984, the Class of 1979 (“End of the Line – Seventy-nine”), the last all-male class, had its five year reunion at West Point. The Corps traditionally honors classes returning to West Point for reunions with a parade. The alumni line up, from oldest classes to youngest, along the edge of the Plain, and the current Corps marches past, eyes right, saluting members of the Long Gray Line.





Esteemed members of the Class of ’79 hissed at cadet leaders who happened to be women. Many of these courageous, outspoken men were probably still active duty officers in the U.S. Army. Now, doesn’t that make you proud?

The number of male cadets who were openly antagonistic and misogynistic was probably small by the time I went through West Point. But how many do you need? And why were any of them tolerated? Not only was it immature and uncalled for, it was unprofessional and just plain wrong. Why did these male cadets hate women being at West Point so much?

Not only were there name calling and sexual harassment, there was also sexual assault within those hallowed walls of gray. Many female grads can tell tales of drunken male cadets stumbling into their rooms late at night and touching them, fondling them, or worse. Did the fact that these cadets were drunk, probably after a night of binge drinking down at Ike Hall, somehow make it less bad? I think not.

I find it a travesty that men like this can become officers in the United States Army. How is it in any way, shape, or form acceptable for there to be officers who commit sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape? It’s not

Incredibly, there were no locks on cadet doors until very recently. It took all the hullabaloo in the press about sexual assault at the service academies for the Administration to authorize the installation of locks on all cadet room doors. The honor code and cadet integrity were supposed to make locks unnecessary. And privacy was not a concept even to be considered.

What I find more disturbing, however, is the huge majority of male cadets who tolerated, overlooked, or denied all of the name-calling, harassment, and abuse. These were, by and large, the “good guys.” Forthright, honorable, intelligent, caring leaders. Did they just not see? Were they that oblivious?

On the bus ride from the hotel up to West Point for the Army football game during our 20th Reunion Weekend, a male classmate, whom we all adored as funny, accepting, and kind, sat with our small group of female friends. He said that a woman grad from an earlier class had been telling him how she had been harassed at West Point simply for being a woman. He said he had been shocked, dumbfounded. He turned to us and earnestly asked, “That sort of thing never happened to any of you, did it?”

We stared at him in disbelief.

How could such an upstanding, open-minded guy have been so blind, so clueless to what was going on all around him?

It pretty much left us speechless. Eyebrows rose and we all exchanged glances. Where does one begin…?

It wasn’t until later that evening, back in one of our hotel rooms, over glasses of wine, that we talked about it. And took turns telling our own personal experiences. Many of us had been roommates at West Point and most had remained close friends over the past twenty years. Yet here we were telling each other stories, many of them for the first time. We had not even told each other some of the horrible things that had happened to us.

We were so young then. And naïve. And trusting. Upperclassmen, especially Firsties, were like gods to us. We looked up to them, even the ones we despised for being assholes. The name-calling, the harassment, the abuse stunned us. We were in denial. For the most part, we had never experienced such antipathy in our young lives before. It made us feel shamed and humiliated. Often we bore the brunt of the offenses in silence, tried to ignore them, brush them off as just another form of hazing. If there were offenses egregious enough, we might speak up. But often that merely caused more problems. We were then seen as troublemakers. And in some cases, if a female cadet accused a male cadet of sexual harassment or assault, she would then incur the wrath of the other male cadets – even her own classmates – who would proceed to make her life even more of a living hell. It just wasn’t worth it.

So, are things better now? Are women more accepted at the service academies? They have been there for thirty years now. In some ways, I think yes. In others, no. It does not surprise me in the least to read stories about sexual harassment and assault at the service academies. It disturbs me, but it does not surprise me.

It was always there, usually ignored, suppressed, or minimized. If it was seen as a problem, it was seen as a minor problem that could be contained. An anomaly. Something that should never publicly be spoken about.

By not facing the problems head on and being open and truthful, the Administrations merely served to let them continue at a low simmer. One or two bad eggs did not make a bad place. While that is true, not recognizing the larger issues that lay underneath merely perpetuated a problem that women all along have known about. Because they experienced it.

Why do women go to West Point?

Part of the reason – and this would differ from the men – is that we believe that if we are given the chance to prove how smart, talented, and capable we are, we will be accepted. Not as women. But as individuals.

We do not believe that women are better than men, or that West Point should be all women. We believe that people should be evaluated on their capabilities. If an individual can do the job and do it well, he or she should be allowed to do it. Period.

Unfortunately, as we soon found out, just being able to do a job well does not ensure acceptance for women, either at West Point or in the Army. It helps certainly, but as women soon realized, not only did we have to be “as good,” we had to be “better.”

While women doing outstanding jobs do help change minds, it only takes one woman doing a poor job to wipe everything else out. That is why military women tend to frown upon other military women who are overweight, out of shape, or incompetent.

To many men, an outstanding female leader is the exception, while the incompetent female leader is the validating standard bearer. There are plenty of incompetent men in the Army, but they are seen as men who happen to be incompetent. Incompetent women are seen as the reason why women shouldn’t be in the Army.

The Army is a very male-dominated and male-oriented institution, as it has been for hundreds, thousands of years. West Point is seen as the Shangri-la of the Army, at least by many West Pointers. It is supposed to be a step above, the standard which all others choose to emulate. How women can ever fit into this rose-colored fairy tale view is the challenge.

Personally, I do not believe women will ever be fully accepted at West Point, or in the Army. This is based on my own personal experiences, as well as my interactions with men, to include my father and my husband. Because I am at heart an idealist, it disturbs me that I feel this way.

I hope that I am wrong.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"But an officer on duty knows no one..."

It has been brought to my attention that women now make up 14-16% of a West Point class, as opposed to 10%. That might seem like a minor difference at first, but it is a fifty percent increase.

Consider this: There were about 100 (out of 1,000) women in my West Point class. Imagine if there had been 150, or 50 more women. Just in my class alone. That would have made a huge difference to those of us going through the Academy. Fifty more women you could turn to, pass by on your way to and from class, see out there in that giant sea of gray. Fifty more women to add strength to our numbers and help validate our presence.

I am not sure how many women there are in the “real” Army these days, or what percentage of the total they are. I do know that the military has shrunk considerably since the 80s and the end of the Cold War. It doesn’t seem like the number of missions or deployments has decreased any; in fact, I daresay they have dramatically increased. So, we have fewer soldiers deploying more frequently and repeatedly. And the wisdom of these continued deployments is debatable.

When I was in CBT, Cadet Basic Training, “Beast,” I did not think about things like that. I did not think about much besides what uniform I needed to wear to the next formation or activity; where and when it would be; all of the Plebe knowledge I was supposed to be memorizing; what was for dinner (not because I thought I was going to get to eat any of it, but rather because an upperclassman could ask at any time, “What’s for dinner, New Cadet?” – among a whole plethora of other mind-numbing questions. And ask they did! And you’d better know the answers); and where the fuck my room was.

The barracks, to me, were a giant maze of identical stairwells and hallways. On R-Day, I had been led to our company area by a very circuitous route, one that I had difficulty replicating. It took me a while to figure out when I was on the outside of the building, on which wing and side my room was and thus which door I should enter. It was all a giant blur. I kept getting… lost. NOT something one wants to do in Beast. Once of the worst things you could do was wander into the wrong company area.

I tried to follow my Beast squadmates, particularly my roommate, back into the barracks whenever I could. Fortunately, I was blessed with an amazing Beast roommate. Not only was she funny, down-to-earth, and supportive, she was also a “prepster.” That meant she had just spent the past year at USMAPS, the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School. And this meant she was a font of experience and information, and she was more than willing to share it. I mean, for starters, she knew what most of the stuff laid out on our beds that first day was. And she knew how to wear a uniform, how to roll up fatigues sleeves, how to polish combat boots so they really shined, and what all of the unfathomable acronyms meant. While I felt blessed, she probably wondered what sort of bonehead she’d ended up with, someone who couldn’t even find her own room in the barracks!

My Beast roommate was a dynamo from Queens, a cosmopolitan New Yorker. She was charismatic, smart, funny, and very talkative. I, on the other hand, was a shy introvert from a small town in Pennsylvania. Perhaps a little to both our surprises, we got along great.

Which roommate(s) you end up with at West Point is pretty much luck of the draw. There were fewer women and fewer women per company, so the number of permutations for roommates was fewer. As upperclassmen, women cadets might end up rooming with the same roommate(s) their entire time there. Your Beast roommate, however, was completely arbitrary. I am so thankful for the incredible woman I met for the first time on R-Day. We are still close friends today – having been there for each other through marriage, motherhood, career changes, umpteen moves, deployments, divorce, aging parents, teenagers, middle age, the whole gamut of life’s events and crises. And we still make each other laugh.

We both firmly believed a sense of humor would help us make it through Beast. And we made a good team. We also seemed to have a predilection for show tunes….

There were tons of things we had to memorize as new cadets – sayings, orders, songs, facts, military ranks and insignia, historical trivia. The list was endless and overwhelming. Soon after R-Day we were issued a little book called Bugle Notes, affectionately referred to as the “Plebe Bible.” It had nothing to do with religion; rather, it was chock full of all the crap we had to memorize.

One lengthy passage we had to be able to spew verbatim was Worth’s Battalion Orders. It was long and stilted and somewhat difficult to memorize, so we put our creativity to work to get this thing down pat. Imagine our squad leader’s surprise when he entered our room one evening to find us doing a whole song and dance routine (with rifles) to help us memorize Worth’s Battalion Orders.

But an officer on duty knows no one…”

(Did I mention that neither of us could sing?)

Our fearless Firstie squad leader took one wide-eyed glance at us before bidding a hasty retreat. “I’m going to try this again!”

Two solid knocks sounded at our door, the signal that an upperclassman was standing outside.

“Enter, sir!” we shouted, both standing at attention. As if Broadway was the furthest thing from our minds.

Why do women go to West Point?

People ask me that all the time.

For the same reasons men do, I suppose. Because they are young and naïve. Because they are idealistic and want to serve their country. Because their father or grandfather went to West Point. Because they want to do something that matters, that makes a difference. Because they want to do something challenging, different. Because they are interested in a university that is about way more than just academics. Because they are attracted to the tradition, the prestige, the history. Because they want to be leaders. Because they are inspired by principles like duty, loyalty, and honor. Because it’s a “free education.” Because they have no fucking clue what they’re getting themselves into. Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The reasons are numerous and complex and multi-layered. To try to break it down by gender would be meaningless.

A better question might be: why would smart, motivated, talented women want to go somewhere they were not necessarily welcome? Why would they want to enter a bastion of maleness, a fortress of male testosterone and machismo? Perhaps because in their youth and idealism they did not see the military as having to be all male. They saw the Army as a place they could contribute and make a difference. Why couldn’t a woman server her country? Why couldn’t a woman lead soldiers in battle? Fire a gun, dig a trench, cross a minefield, drive a tank, just as well as the next guy? Why not? As young women in the feminist era, we were raised to believe we could be anything we wanted to be – doctors, lawyers, physicists, engineers, astronauts. Why couldn’t we be soldiers, too? I don’t think it had occurred to us that we couldn’t.

No one had prepared us, though, for the antagonism, the resistance, the outright misogyny we faced within those gray granite walls. No one had prepared us for the fact that there were some people, mostly men (and not just cadets, officers, too), who did not want us there. They did not want us to be soldiers, they did not want us to be officers, and, most of all, they did not want us to be West Pointers. Surely, the admission of women would lower standards, lessen the challenge, diminish the experience, and produce a weaker brand of West Pointer.

Such fears proved woefully unfounded. And I would argue that the admission of women changed the institution for the better – raised the bar, improved the training environment, and increased the overall degree of performance and achievement. I am sure there are still some (mostly men) who would beg to differ. Who feel women have no business being at West Point.

To them, I would say: Fucking get over it!