Growing up, my brothers (playing soldiers) thought I should play nurse; I suggested they stuff it. Once refusing the nomination for class secretary, I ran for president. During a sixth grade dance recital, feeling the boy not capable, I took the lead during the waltz. And in high school, thinking it unjust that I had to prepare my brother’s lunch, my revenge was hiding hot peppers in their peanut butter sandwiches.
Following this attitude, as a young officer in the Air Force, I agreed to become one of 15 female officers to act as Air Training Officers at the Air Force Academy, experiencing the rigors that the future first female cadets would face. Anticipating entering one of the last bastions of male domain, I expected the male cadets and officers, at the Academy, to share my enthusiasm.
During the first weeks we mock cadets were introduced to the traditions of the Academy: squat-thrusts, square meals, rifle assembly, and running marches. Interrupting these activities were brief periods of varied and sundry males screaming at us, illuminating how unwanted we [women] were at their academy.
I learned a great deal during that pilot program: I learned it’s possible to climb up and down a 50-ft pole—crying. I learned to sleep on top of a bed in full uniform, and not get one wrinkle. I learned to begin and end every sentence with sir. I learned that you should be able to identify poison ivy before you do ‘number two’ in the woods. I learned to grab a nap by feigning fake death during imaginary sieges. I learned that when held captive for hours, and offered two cans, only one is for drinking water. I learned that the best food in C-rations is the sugar packet. I learned that, during training in the mountains, being resourceful doesn’t include sharing a bedroll with a male cadet. I learned that no matter how many pairs of socks you wear, men’s combat boots don’t fit. I learned that a square meal is a meal that never makes it to your mouth; I learned that square corners are just turns; I learned that square corners on a top bunk are impossible. I learned to remove the socks stuffed behind our windows, to quiet the rattling of the wind, before room inspection, or you should learn to enjoy squat thrusts. I learned that when they tell you what your secret mission is you should pay attention, so during pretend capture you can quickly confess, and avoid their play torture.
Those lessons, as tough as they seemed, were not the most difficult. The harder lessons came with shattering that invisible barrier—being the first females to enter the Academy. Looking back, my one disappointment is that I never got to express my appreciation to those hard nose cadets and officers that made us painfully aware of how very unwelcome we were. I’d like to reconcile that, invite them over—for one of my special—peanut butter sandwiches.