Two pairs of hands pull blonde locks back into tight, perfect buns. Polish-free nails smooth the creases on the jackets that bear their names and ranks. Fingers quickly pass over the laces of the large combat boots weighing down their smaller frames. While one woman prepares for a field exercise during her first year training in Oregon, the other dons a uniform in Iraq—an outfit as familiar as her own skin.
These two women are among the thousands who proudly serve the United States Army. However, men make up 86 percent of the active-duty army and it is their faces and stories displayed in the media during times of war. But, in the last few centuries, women have taken on a larger role in battle, other than laundering soldiers’ uniforms and cooking meals, typically their military roles in past wars.
Flash-forward to the War on Terror declared in 2001. Women serve in 93 percent of all army occupations, although they are still held to different standards than their male counterparts with only 70 percent of army positions open to them. Although their role has slowly increased over the years, they still face very different and very real challenges because of their gender.
“You have to be a strong woman to be in the military,” says eighteen-year-old University of Oregon freshman Juliana Hoffman. “There’s going to be a lot of criticism.”
Hoffman is a first-year Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) student with a military background. Her father was a colonel in the Vietnam War and her mother was a lieutenant colonel in Desert Storm. Since both of her parents served in the military for over twenty years, she received plenty of support to enlist.
“I grew up around the military, around the base, and was always influenced by military people,” Hoffman says.
In each new town, Hoffman lived on the army base and the soldiers in their Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) were her only constant childhood memory. Her parents’ jobs moved her around the globe. Her peers’ faces started to blur together with each move—from her home state of Washington to Italy to California. She bounced through five different schools during her childhood leaving any friends she had made behind.
“I never had a close childhood friend because of the moving,” she says. “It was lonely and it was hard.”
Before Hoffman was old enough to truly understand what her parents did for a living, bitterness aggravated her when she witnessed the difference between her life and the lives of her schoolmates.
“Growing up, I was proud of my parents, but I never really understood what they did. I was resentful because I didn’t get to spend as much time with my parents as I’d like to,” she says. “Now that I’m older, I appreciate them so much more. I think it’s amazing what they did.”
Although her father retired once Hoffman’s mother discovered she was pregnant, her mom remained on active duty. Until Hoffman was six, she and her brother spent the majority of their time with a nanny.
“My mom would go on business trips for weeks at a time—she was so consumed,” Hoffman says.
Her dad took over as a stay-at-home dad after the nanny left, but Hoffman still felt different.
“It was a little awkward having my dad take me to Brownies when everyone else had their mom there,” she says.
Now, Hoffman spends the majority of her time with ROTC, an uncanny resemblance to the time her mother dedicated to the service. She works her muscles three days a week during morning training sessions until they ache with pain.
With a head full of blonde hair, a tall, lean frame, and eyes decorated with different hues of make-up, Hoffman says that she may not look like the stereotypical army girl, but she joined for the challenge—and that’s exactly what she got.
She and the other cadets start their Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays promptly at six thirty in the morning, working on abs and arms.
“They’ll just work us and work us until there is pain involved,” she says.
Dark, dreary mornings await them, along with the occasional rainstorm during their runs. The campus is deserted and the crisp air freezes their sweat-stained army t-shirts.
“But it feels so good,” Hoffman says. “I’m sore and I’m exhausted, but I’m the type of person who loves to workout,” she says.
Along with the grueling morning workouts, the cadets embark on a field training once a term, starting at five thirty in the morning and continuing until eight o’clock at night. Their leaders simulate a mission typically performed in war zones and the cadets must treat it as such, carrying upward of fifty pounds. Hoffman completed one arduous field training earlier this fall.
“We were hiking up mountains and we were in the woods. We couldn’t stop until we found the point we needed to find. It was exhausting being in such heavy gear and boots, climbing over obstacles and logs,” she says.
Besides the physical aspect, the ROTC is an inimitable learning experience because participants in the program are training to be army officers by graduation. Hoffman hasn’t given much thought to the four years she must serve in the army after graduation, but she knows that it will be difficult. She credits growing up in the army for preparing her for what’s to come.
Although the different standards set for men and women frustrate her, she tries not to doubt herself, but instead, push beyond what’s expected from her as a woman.
“My mom has always taught me that girls are equal to boys,” she says. But the army doesn’t allow women on the front lines. “If there was something I really wanted to do, but couldn’t because of my gender, then that would upset me,” she says.
“I’m not going to go out there and be treated like a guy, but I like to be the best at what I do,” Hoffman adds.
Military Sexual Trauma Social Worker Sonja Fry of the Veterans Association in Eugene, Oregon, served eight years as a military police woman and uses her experience to counsel women with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and those who endured sexual abuse while serving in the forces.
“To be a female soldier in the military is already a mark against a female,” she says. “There’s already a feeling of being separate from the rest of the soldiers.”
According to Fry, this feeling of separation can lead to isolation, depression, and anxiety.
“It’s a tough life for anybody,” she says.
Hoffman, too, recognizes certain qualities that all women need to exude through the identity-stripping uniforms to make it successfully through the army.
“She has to be able to push herself and be willing to put up with criticism,” Hoffman says.
“And she has to be okay with not being number one. Emotionally, she has to be able to be judged and not let it affect her; not let the failure take over her,” she says, remembering the first training session where she didn’t finish first.
But her determination to disprove the stereotype of women as the weaker sex is another value that she believes an army woman must have.
“A strong army woman has to know what she wants and not stop until she gets it,” she says.
Fry adds that no matter how hard a woman works in the army, it usually won’t matter to the males because they see it as “[women] aren’t equal to men.”
One such strong woman is Army Intelligence Officer Captain Kelly Calway, currently serving her ninth year in the force, including her time in ROTC. The twenty-six-year-old 2008 Army Female Athlete of the Year, born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, started in the ROTC with a push from her father. As a commanding general at the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning, Georgia, he hoped that his daughter would join the army just as he had.
Calway is currently based in Fort Carson, Colorado with her husband, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan, and their three-year-old daughter. The petite woman, with long blonde hair and brown eyes is strong in ways that would make most men envious. She packs more muscle and strength in her short legs than some of the weapons she totes. Calway is a dedicated runner—she’s training for the 2012 Summer Olympics—and she consistently beats her male competition during physical tests.
“I could fight as well as some of the guys out there,” she says.
The army currently pays Calway to run under their name with a typical training session consisting of twenty miles. She uses this physical strength as a way to break barriers with her male counterparts.
“I have to earn respect in a different way. I work harder to be the very best and study up a little bit more beforehand. But I’ve got a lot out of being good at the physical-type stuff,” she says.
Because Calway consistently beats her male competitors, she struggles with the rule that female soldiers can’t hold certain positions.
“When I was a gung-ho cadet, I wanted to go to ranger school, which isn’t open to us. I was really bent out of shape about not being able to go,” she says.
“I know I can do just as much as any guy out there can do, and if you’re able to meet the same standards as a guy, then you should be able to.”
Fry agrees that equality is lacking in the army.
“You can do your job as well as any other male soldier, but it’s never good enough,” she says. “Even if you give 150 percent in comparison to your peers, it’s still never good enough because you’re always going to be a woman. You’re doing a man’s job, and a lot of men feel threatened by that.”
Female soldiers are still deployed and sent to dangerous situations, even if they don’t hold the same positions as males. Calway was deployed to Iraq in May 2009 for six months, three years after she graduated from ROTC. As an intelligence officer, Calway surveyed the war zones for the infantry soldiers stationed on the ground who were in constant danger from the enemies. She created comprehensive briefs of the area to keep her team in control of the situation.
“Before a unit goes in, we know where the hot spots are going to be,” she says. “We’re responsible for figuring out where the bad guys live.” And her work helped keep their unit safe and prepared.
“When we save lives doing what we do, it’s like high fives all around,” she says. “You take so much pride in that. If you can stop one soldier from being killed or injured, your entire day is worth it.”
Calway felt the pressure of being in charge of hundreds of lives while working eighteen hours straight in horrid heat. “It was like having a hair dryer constantly blowing on your face,” she says. “It was just dust and dust and dust, with all kinds of sand and fires.”
Transitioning from the green, mountainous scenery that she experienced in her various homes growing up, Calway was trapped in a desert of monotony. So many factors contributed to making Iraq the ultimate test of endurance. “Everybody burns their trash there and it’s a really disgusting smell. It’s not a beautiful place,” she says with a laugh.
But something that Calway remembers most from her time in Iraq is losing her sense of self.
“It got boring wearing [the ACUs] every single day. Then you see someone wearing earrings and you get kind of jealous. It’s so much more girly!” she says. She could never free herself from the uniform like she would when she was in the States. Instead, it became her new identity, and she felt less like a woman.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I could totally go for a skirt, or a pair of heels!’” she laughs.
She was forced to adjust to life in the desert without the simple luxuries such as hair dye, certain clothing, and even feminine hygiene products.
But the most challenging aspect of life in a desert war zone was the loneliness from being separated from her family. Calway longed to see her daughter and missed her second birthday.
“As a mom, you really miss your kid,” she says.
She found slight solace in the other mothers there, knowing their feelings differed from the father soldiers’. “I’d like to say it’s the exact same, but it isn’t. You feel a little bit more guilty as a mom,” Calway says.
Fry stresses that male counterparts see these types of situations as weaknesses.
“It’s tough to be a woman in the army and have a problem, emotional or otherwise,” she says. “[Men see it as] you trying to use your gender to get ahead or not do the same duties as everyone else. Like you’re trying to ride the system.”
But Calway talked to other mothers and put thoughts of her daughter and husband aside while she was working. She was in a war zone. Enemy fire boomed through their army base, indirect fire shook the ground, and thunderous helicopters constantly hovered, providing a shield of noise.
“You hear about all of the horrible things that the terrorists are doing, and when you get in direct fire on your base and you feel it, you realize how evil our enemies are,” she says. The deafening noise became such a common companion among the troops that a joke emerged out of the situation.
“You hear so many explosions that you just get used to it. It became a joke that if you jump, then you’re a newbie,” she says.
After her shift ended and her mind was still filled with the sounds of explosions and the detailed maps of enemy locations, she focused on what kept her happy at home.
“There were frustrating times and situations that would get really stressful, so at three in the morning, I would jump on the treadmill and get that stress and anger out,” she says. The rhythm of her feet hitting the belt and her steady breathing was so familiar and grounding, she credits her running for not having PTSD when she returned home.
Calway plans to continue her career in the military and hopes that her daughter will one day attend West Point and become an officer herself.
“I would love for her to consider Military Intelligence and I am sure my husband would attempt to sway her toward Engineers,” says Calway. “But we will just be proud that she decided to serve her country.”
As for Calway’s time devoted to the forces, “I’m just glad to give back to the country that has given me so much,” she says.
Although military counselor Fry has no disrespect for those who choose to serve, her experience, and that of the victims, influences her outlook. If a woman asked her if she should enlist, Fry would respond by telling her not to join.
“Until [the military] becomes more proactive about sexual trauma and actually makes some changes, then I don’t think it’s a healthy place for a woman to be.”