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Female ROTC Cadets: Women Warriors

For these ROTC cadets, it’s always life during wartime

ROTC

An early female ROTC member in 1972.

Bill Peters/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Before the final note of reveille wavers off into the brightening Florida sky, Kendra Larson’s heart begins pounding. She attacks her Nike laces, lashes her waist-length blond braid to her head and shouts to the eighteen cadets in her charge today: “C’mon, guys — we’re late!” Seconds later she’s out the door and into the line of jogging shadows in the early-morning light. They fall into the clicking pulse of the crickets, round a dune and trot down the edge of a floodlit field.

A hazy figure hoists a flag. Feet snap into formation: faces taut, knees locked, spines stiff, shoulders back, hands straight-armed into fists. One hundred six college sophomores freeze in mass salute. Gulls swoop in from overnight missions on the horizon.

“At ease!” bellows Colonel David Sims, a much decorated twenty-five-year veteran of the air force who teaches Aerospace Studies at the University of Georgia. Larson tucks some wisps of hair up into her cap.

Cadet Training Officer (CTO) Terri Weaver marches smartly to the front of the ranks. “Who can tell me what happened on this day in history?” she demands. A gangly dark-haired cadet is motioned forward. He faces the officer; their noses meet.

“May I make a statement, ma’am?” “CAN’T HEAR YOU, CADET,” she roars.

He screams: “ON-JULY-SIXTEEN-1939-THE-FIRST-ATOMIC-BOMB-EXPLODED …”

“On this day?” she scoffs. “BRICKEAR!! Don’t you know history?” Weaver is right in his face; the cadet inhales her angry breath. “That was utterly weak,” she says. “Drop and do ten.”

It’s ten after five. Another officer takes her place to lead this morning’s physical training. Benumbed by weeks of exhaustion, the cadets reflexively repeat each command as they jump from THE WINDMILL, SIR! to the PUSH-UP, SIR! Muscles strain; screams and moans erupt from the cadets as they move into THE DREADED CIRCLE ROTATION, SIR!

Physical training ends with a test: a mile and a half run that women must finish in fourteen minutes and twenty-four seconds. A bunch of drenched cadets lope through the finish a little more than nine minutes later. They jog over to the curb to cheer on teammates. Four minutes later — and too far down the road — a lone cadet resolutely pumps her short legs. Colonel Sims sprints out to coach up her speed. A few male cadets race over to shout encouragement. She finishes panting, a minute too late to save her military career.

One less woman warrior to defend America.

Welcome to tyndall air force base, in panama City, Florida, home of the Field Training Encampment for the United States Air Force’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (around anyone official, call it r-o-t-c, not rot-see). Summer field training is the mettle tester, the last stop for cadets who can’t take four to six weeks of grueling gulaglike labor — you try doing 300 push-ups a day under a 100-degree sun — can’t deal with the stench of once-a-week showers or brief, stolen moments in the john. It’s the end of the line for those who can’t measure up to the wishes and whims of the six CTOs — fellow students who, having made it through previous camps, get paid about eighteen dollars a day to torture these fledgling fly-boys and -girls.

The camp is to the enlisted woman’s basic training as Top Gun is to Platoon. Cadets graduate into second lieutenant’s bars, not grunt’s fatigues. ROTC, established in 1916 as the training ground for an elite group of “citizen soldiers,” now has units on more than 400 American college campuses, and graduates of the program make up half the officer corps of the air force, army, navy and marines.

ROTC was opened to women in 1970, and today about 11,000 college women take part. But twenty years has brought some big changes. These women warriors are serving in a post-cold-war, postfeminist ROTC that is struggling, like the U.S. military, to redefine women’s roles and come to terms withe thorny issues like homosexuality.

ROTC recruits at the high-school level, seeking out the most promising high-school seniors (a full third of these students graduate first or second in their high-school class), luring them with total scholarships good for tuition, books and some personal expenses. Recruiters also spin visions of advanced technical training, pay competitive with that of civilian jobs and postgraduate studies at military expense. Nonscholarship students and those who’ve taken time off before college (but still make the twenty-five-year-old cutoff) can opt for unpaid membership and hope to perform well enough to score free tuition later on.

In exchange, cadets must maintain passing grades in their academic courses, as well as in hundreds of hours of accredited ROTC courses. In addition, they must attend leadership labs, physical-fitness classes and marching and shooting practice. Cadets who flunk classes or military expectations of physical prowess, ideology or weight control are given ten years to pay back their tuition to ROTC. Upon graduation, cadets must serve from three years (naval ensigns) to ten years (air-force pilots).

College sophomores going for the accelerated two-year ROTC programs must first make it through rigorous field-training camps like Tyndall. The intention of the seven air-force camps is to weed out the merely patriotic from the supercadets. Those who pass muster here can swagger home to their college units, choice commissions virtually assured.

Back at the barracks, Larson’s eighteen cadets (called a flight in air-force lingo) rush to ready their quarters for daily inspection. Today she’s in charge; the position of group leader changes every day. She watches as they whip out rulers to measure regulation pillow placement and stick wire hangers into sheet folds to make perfect forty-five-degree angles. The electrical cords for their irons get wound counterclockwise and set on the left side of metal lockers. Flip-flops, sneakers, combat boots, peek out from under the center of each cot. Deodorant, nail clippers, razors, tampons, stamped envelopes preaddressed home, are safely stowed in middle drawers.

The cadets peel off sweaty gym domes and jam them into identical laundry bags stowed at bed’s end and button up their dress blues for the second of five changes this day. Larson panics as she sifts through drawers, then bolts down the hall to borrow a hat “My hair feels totally gross,” she says as she fits it on her head and runs for the door. “But everyone smells this bad. After a while, though, you don’t notice it.”

“Hu-up, two, three, four.” Larson marches the flight past gardens lined withe polished white pebbles that spell out camp slogans: Echo Eagles Flying High, Echo Eagles To The Sky. F-16s twist in the sky above, drowning out Larson’s growled commands. She raises her voice: “DOUBLE TO THE REAR WITH A SLIGHT HESITATION.” the flight neatly pivots. “RRUH, UUH, HUUHT,” she barks.

“I didn’t go in gung-ho ROTC,” Larson says later in the day. “Freshman year was really hard for me. I wasn’t used to people telling me what to do, like polish your shoes, iron your uniforms. And trust me, the idea of wearing my uniform all day on Thursdays was pretty awful. But now I’m proud of what I represent. And I try to carry myself with dignity all the time — you don’t want to go to a party and make a complete fool of yourself and have people know, ‘That girl’s in the military!’ “

You’d never guess from a first meeting that this bubbly twenty-year-old sophomore from the University of Colorado at Boulder is actually a highly disciplined, sharpshooting military machine, headed for medical school and an air-force career as a flight surgeon or, she hopes, an astronaut. “It’s humorous,” Larson says. “People take one look at me and think: ‘She’s a dumb blonde. She can’t have brains.’ “

But for cadets like Larson, ROTC is not just a job — or an adventure — it’s a way of life. “I’m part of a group of people who have decided our top priority is defending our country — we believe we can take our talents and mix them with our feelings and pride and use all that together to help defend America,” she says.

Larson learned this fierce loyalty from her father, a Vietnam veteran. He rarely talked about his combat experiences with his daughter, but she’s always understood his pride at having served there. When Larson was in the seventh grade, the family went to see the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington. “I don’t know if it was the wall that broke me up so much,” she says, “or seeing my dad cry for the first time in my life.” Larson credits her father with encouraging her to stick with ROTC that tough first year. Today’s mail brings a letter from him. “Remember that there are people back home who have faith in you,” he writes. “He knows that I’m a strong enough person to deal,” Kendra says. “He’s more worried about me here at field training. I’m his little girl, and I’m getting all dirty and sweaty.”

Ironically, Larson’s military career, like her father’s, is caught in a cross-fire of student protest. This time the demonstrations are over ROTC policies that discriminate against gays. At liberal campuses like UC Boulder, hostilities are running high; there are frequent and fiery protests to end ROTC’s presence on campus. “My dad hopes I never have to feel what he felt coming home from the army after Vietnam,” Larson says. “But he knows that even if it hurts to have the people I’m defending call me rude things, deep down I’m doing what I thought was right.”

Larson is even sympathetic to the protesters’ cause — to a point. “There’s still a lot more I need to learn before I can judge the decisions of officers,” she says. She shakes her head. “[The protesters] don’t understand that what we’re doing is giving them the freedom to voice their opinions. We’re defending that.”

Today’s ROTC faces enemies massing on two fronts. Not only are nationwide protests of its antigay policy threatening to close down units on campus, the Pentagon’s own belt-tightening has increased the competition for fewer scholarships. ROTC grads face limited chances to score top commissions. And the outlook is least heartening for female cadets. Unless the Pentagon bows to growing public pressure and allows women to battle it out for combat-track careers in all branches of the service, women will find themselves increasingly funneled into dead-end supporting roles. To some forward-thinking observers in the military, this would be a tragedy. “We couldn’t go to war without women, and we couldn’t win without them,” says air-force colonel Douglas Kennett.

Larson’s flight files silently into the mess-hall line. Each straight-backed cadet holds a four-by-five-inch Warrior Handbook inches from unfocused eyes. At any moment any one of them could be called upon to recite whole passages from its forty-six trivia-filled pages … or the second verse of the Star-Spangled Banner … or stanza after stanza of pilot poetry full of allusions to slipping Earth’s surly bonds.

Twelve minutes later Larson reaches for her regulation two waters and one juice, picks out eggs, bacon, toast (only officers rate coffee). One by one the cadets march into the dining area, careful to slide a hand out from under food trays held chest high to salute passing officers.

CTO Peter Bilodeau, a cocky, handsome senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Florida (“Looks like Goose, acts like Iceman, flies like Maverick” is the female cadets’ file on him), stands in judgment.

“Cadet Fine, did you iron that shirt?” The cadet, whose uniform appears immaculate, stares straight ahead.

“MAY I MAKE A STATEMENT, SIR!” Bilodeau nods.

“YES!”

” ‘Yes’, cadet?”

He blushes. “SIR. MAY I MAKE A STATEMENT. SIR!”

“This better be good, cadet.”

“YES-SIR! I IRONED MY SHIRT. SIR.”

Bilodeau fights a grin. “Was the iron plugged in?”

Larson’s roommate, Leslie Picht, heads for an empty table.

“Whoa there, cadet!” Bilodeau snorts down at the tiny blonde. “Where’s your name tag?”

“MAY I MAKE A STATEMENT, SIR!”

“Go ahead.”

“I AM CADET NO-NAME, SIR!” Picht’s face is impassive.

“Okay, Cadet No-Name. Write a 200-word essay on the importance of knowing your name.” He looks down at her breakfast tray and grins. “Double Sugar Pops?”

Cadets stand until all the places at a table are filled: Then, simultaneously, knees bend, tensed rears thump into the seats. Forks shovel overwarmed eggs in continuous right angles to mechanically grinding teeth; zombielike eyes focus on the napkin holder at the table’s center.

A voice from somewhere in the mess hall: “A TOAST TO THE POWs AND MIAs!” Fifty-three glasses of ice water rise toward the ceiling. The room reflexively shouts, “HERE, HERE!”

Three minutes after they sit, time’s up. The truly brave shovel in one last bite of creamed chipped beef. Larson’s table rises and roars the camp’s motto: “IN THE SIGHT!” They march their trays to waiting kitchen trolleys and lock-step out.

Larson has had better days. She was handed two demerits for not noticing her roommate’s missing name tag, another one because her borrowed hat fit a bit too snugly to pass CTO scrutiny. Then there was the fork she accidentally placed on the knife’s side of her breakfast tray. She’s on her honor to subtract from merits that are given out for topping an athletic personal best, winning a team-leadership competition or knowing the right answer. Cadets who rack up enough demerits are summoned to the nightly beach party down at the track, where joking CTOs wail surfer music and run miscreants around the track until they nearly barf from exhaustion.

When Larson’s cadets return to their rooms, it’s clear that she will have an invitation to tonight’s beach party. Their quarters have been inspected while they were at breakfast. Their drawers have been jerked upside down, bedsheets ripped out, dirty laundry litters the room.

They huddle, decide to divide and conquer: The boys’ rooms will be done first. Four poker-faced girls take the offensive, creasing T-shirts, measuring bed folds, pulling lint from uniforms. Two guys are leaning against the wall. “They didn’t have to throw my mom’s letters all over,” one of them whines. Larson’s pissed. “I went through and standardized everyone’s socks,” she says, glaring at the motionless males. “What happened?” She sifts through underwear, folding the briefs neatly in half. Her hand lights on a jockstrap. “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO FOLD THIS,” she yells, flinging it across the bed.

Always the good sport, Larson seems grateful for the extra work. “CTO Weaver noticed something about our flight,” she says back in her room. “We were getting lax, we weren’t pulling together as much as we should have been. That was the only drastic thing she could do that would make us work together as a team.” Later on Terri Weaver stops by to help clean up.

Of all the branches of the military service, the air force offers women the most opportunities. Ever since the first four women had the chutzpah to sign on to the air force’s pioneer ROTC program in 1969, the air-force ROTC commanders have maintained a remarkably successful siege on chauvinism. Absolutely no touching, profanity or demeaning language is allowed. Fed-up drill sergeants have learned to scream, “You bunch of INDIVIDUALS!!!” “Males see you at six in the morning, they see you sweating, they see you down in the dirt with them,” says Larson. “When you go through this camp doing circle push-ups, you have no gender.”

Even with sweat-matted hair and a week’s worth of body odor, Lisa Adams carries off her lumpy camouflage jumpsuit like a Ralph Lauren model. Back home, at the University of Michigan, she tends to hesitate before telling potential boyfriends that she’s in ROTC, an honors aerospace-engineering student and a UM varsity-track star who runs the 440 in fifty-eight seconds.

Nothing, it seems, gets Adams down at camp. She can’t be fazed, she can’t be hazed — she will recite flawlessly any passage out of the Warrior Handbook; her bedsheets are trampoline taut; and when it comes to physical stuff like running the mile-and-a-half in 8:43, well, the guys call her Amazon.

But until two years ago, all Adams knew about the military were the rigid personalities she saw in the movies and on TV. Nothing could seem further from the future for this small-town St. Charles, Michigan, girl. Adams grew up close to her two brothers; her mom works at a preschool, and her father works for Michigan Bell. She was into everything at school — basketball, volleyball, track, student council, Students Against Drunk Driving, the Ecology Club, and plenty of girls there took advanced math and science classes. Her guidance counselor knew Adams dreamed of being an astronaut and suggested she go for an air-force ROTC scholarship.

Adams didn’t get one. But she hung around ROTC anyway, attracted by the camaraderie of the cadets. By the end of the year, her commanders offered her a scholarship for the remainder of college. She took the summer to think it over, but civilian life never really had a chance. “I had an overwhelming feeling that I knew this was what I wanted,” she says. This fall, the girl who’d never been in a plane until she was nineteen scored her unit’s sole pilot’s commission.

It’s not that easy for everyone. As a result of ROTC’s seductive recruiting pitch, hundreds of teenage girls unwittingly sign on each year for career-long skirmishes with the kind of institutionalized sexism rarely encountered in the civilian world. While women make up 10.8 percent of the active-duty U.S. Armed Forces and 11.5 percent of all active officers (with an air-force high of 13.4 percent, a macho-marine low of 3.4), nearly 50 percent of all military jobs — more than 1 million in all — are off-limits to women.

Some branches are more enlightened than others: Women serve in ninety-seven percent of air-force positions, but they’re banned from eighty percent of Marine Corps jobs. Still, without crucial combat experience under their belts, very few women can hope to rise to the military’s male-dominated high command.

Their personal lives can be just as trying. If Larson or Adams decides to marry a man in uniform, there’s no guarantee she’ll get to live on the same base as her husband. And if she does, her problems are just beginning, according to the National Organization for Women. Only half of all U.S. bases have child-care facilities, and those that do can meet only sixty percent of demand. Military service demands round-the-clock availability, but only seventeen percent of military day-care facilities stay open at night. A third of the centers won’t care for babies younger than six months — even though hard-won military pregnancy leaves typically end at six weeks.

Many servicewomen are grateful for these meager advancements — before 1975, navy and marine-corps women who got pregnant were booted right out of the service. Today only women who get pregnant while at basic training are disenrolled; young mothers are simply banned from ROTC.

When it comes to obstetrics and gynecological care, the only choice given servicewomen is to shell out for a civilian doctor or submit to medical care from the Dark Ages. Military hospitals will perform abortions only if the mother’s life is threatened; military women or dependents stationed in countries where abortion is illegal must travel or seek back-alley abortions. Routine care can be just as risky, reports the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. One army doctor said OB/GYN care at his clinic was so poor it bordered on malpractice. A female navy ensign says she was refused birth-control pills at her base clinic. “The physician’s response was ‘Just say no to your husband’!” she says.

The military also has a long tradition of sexual harassment. “If a woman marine is a little too friendly, she’s a slut,” Marine Corps captain Guy Richardson testified in a recent hearing. “If she doesn’t smile at all, she’s a dyke. I personally believe that a woman marine, in the normal course of a day, confronts more stress and more bullshit than a male would in twenty years.” As women in any branch of the service will tell you, the bullshit comes in various forms: Navy men jokingly refer to menstrual cramps as the “disease of choice” because sufferers can pull lighter duty. Women are accused of slacking for taking time off for medical reasons (even though substance abuse and disciplinary actions account for more male absences), because they often have to drive for hours to get to a base that has OB/GYN care. Women choosing to start or add to their families can find themselves targets of negative evaluations or even reassigned to lower-level duties. Some even forgo prenatal exams because they’re so concerned about losing respect.

The struggle’s a bit more subdued in ROTC. Adams worries that the reason her sister cadet blew this morning’s run might be due to a problem no self-respecting cadet would dare report: irrepressible premenstrual cramps. But the real frustration comes from an underlying attitude: “Sometimes it’s like — look at us!” Adams says. “We’re doing everything just as well as the guys, if not better, and we’re not given the chance.” CTO Terri Weaver agrees. “I feel like I constantly have to prove myself,” says the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior. “I can’t ever let go.”

Day 6: Larson’s crew hunkers down for the Group Leadership Course, a kind of war-game obstacle course for teaching strategy and teamwork. Right now, the members of Larson’s flight are down just behind “enemy” lines. They’ve been spotted, and according to their map, their only chance of escape is to cross a heavily mined field. They’re given six metal “stumps” to keep their feet from hitting the ground as they move across the field. And they can’t risk leaving their huge metal “ammunition” barrel behind for the enemy to find.

Larson’s got a plan, but no one’s listening. Suddenly, a bruiser of a cadet takes matters into his own hands. He throws the metal stump, runs headlong into the field and lands on it. He beckons. Male cadets follow one by one holding hands. Larson and Picht are left behind with the massive barrel. Meanwhile, the first cadet leaps to safety. The line snakes along his path. “Now what?” Larson shouts. Heads turn around. “Go back! Go back!” yells the bruiser. Someone hefts the barrel to a stump and hurls it down the row. Everyone drops hands to cheer the barrel through.

“The enemy’ll be here in thirty seconds!” Larson makes it to the second stump, turns around for Picht. She’s stranded. Her legs just can’t stretch the distance between the stumps. “Hey, guys!” Larson yells. The bruiser crosses back again and pulls Picht across.

The cadets collapse in the grass. CTO Bilodeau saunters over to them. “Okay, does everyone know what went wrong there?” Hands go up. “I heard some good ideas, but someone” — he stares at the bruiser — “had to run off with his own plan and leave the girls with that barrel.” Everyone laughs. “Not that I’m saying they’re weak.” Bilodeau leans on the barrel. The cadets discuss better options for beating the Group Leadership Course. “That’s just the kind of complex situation you’ll be running one day,” Bilodeau lectures, pacing. “Your problem was like our strategy in the Persian Gulf. You were rushed, you micromanaged.”

Last winter, 35,000 women went to the Persian Gulf, performing noncombat operations like driving supply trucks to the front, flying Chinook transport helicopters deep inside enemy territory, operating Patriot missile launchers and guarding Iraqi POWs. Two servicewomen were taken prisoner. Five women died in hostile action.

American women performed so well in the gulf war that in a recent poll, seventy-nine percent of the American public said they believed in women’s ability to carry off combat. Their service prompted this summer’s victorious congressional repeal of bans against women flying navy, air-force and marine war-planes in combat.

But officers on the front line who had worked with women soldiers already knew their value. Army captain Michael Mendell insisted on including one of his best soldiers when he moved his unit to the Iraqi front line. Before the ground assault, Sergeant Theresa Lynn Treloar hefted her M-16 rifle, light-antitank weapon, AT-4 and grenades closer to the front than any other servicewoman had gone. Male soldiers dubbed this confident wife and mother Ice Lady, but her captain called her “my bodyguard.” He added: “I would trust her with my life.”

Official policy changes will take time — especially since the four elderly male service chiefs still hold less-than-enlightened viewpoints. Air-force chief of staff Merrill McPeak testified recently before a Senate subcommittee that he’d prefer a male pilot even if a woman pilot would improve combat effectiveness.

Most of the fears about women in war were put to rest by our fighting females in the gulf. Male bonding gave way to teamwork. (A different brand of bonding, however, caused more than 1200 women to be shipped home after they got pregnant during the Mideast operations.) The synchronicity of menstrual cycles that occurs when women live in close quarters didn’t unleash mass hysteria upon friend or foe. Servicewomen didn’t weep for the fates of the enemy. No infantrywoman fled Iraq’s Scud attacks; no man dropped his machine gun to gallantly drag her from danger.

One ROTC course wasn’t tough enough for Tracy Timmons. The Air Force put her through freshman year at the University of Missouri, Rolla, but in the fall of 1985 it was the army that won her heart. “I wanted to do fun stuff like jump out of airplanes and sleep in the mud,” she says.

It didn’t surprise her much to win the Department of the Army Superior Cadet award that year. Timmons grew up a military brat; she already knew tricks like sleeping on top of your bed so your sheets are always perfect. And no one could doubt her loyalty. For her, “the army was like a religion – it was everything that was right in the world.”

But then Timmons began having feelings that weren’t right with the army.

That was the year ROTC changed the wording of a question on the cadet-enrollment record. Timmons never gave a thought to checking no to “Have you ever had a homosexual affair?” but when the question became “Have you ever engaged in, desired or intend to engage in bodily contact with a person of the same sex for the purpose of sexual satisfaction?” she felt she had to tell the truth. She’d thought about it, sure. All her life, guys had never quite done it for her, her crushes fell on girlfriends.

“For me women had aroused the feelings movies said you should have with men,” Timmons says now. When a friend explained to her what a lesbian was, suddenly everything made sense. Timmons, a true believer, had no choice: “Officers don’t lie, cheat or steal.”

So Timmons became one of 500 ROTC members disenrolled that year — and every year — for what they do or simply imagine doing behind closed doors. The Defense Department’s war against gays in uniform targets women three times more often than it does men — eight times more often in the marines — at a ROTC-wide cost of $26.5 million annually in wasted training and trials. Without the scholarship, Timmons had to drop out of school; she never stepped foot back on campus. “I was devastated,” she says. “The army was my whole life – I’d never known anything else. It was the first time life had been unfair.”

Today, Timmons works at a bank to make money to finish school. She calls herself a dyke. She plans to become a civil-rights lawyer so she can protect people like herself from military homophobia. She’s active in political action. That’s how she met her girlfriend.

Karen Stupski, 24, is also a military brat. She also felt duty-bound to tell the navy about her homosexual thoughts; she also found her whole future shipwrecked.

Stupski used to change into her navy ROTC uniform over at MIT (Harvard booted ROTC off campus during anti-Vietnam War protests twenty years earlier). Harvard changed her, introduced her to ideas she’d never come across on a life’s worth of air-force bases. She began to think of herself as a feminist, even a radical feminist. She wrote papers about the role of feminist ideals within the military, she tried to work out some peace in the war between her beliefs and ambitions. “I’d think about ways to make it work out and not be totally selling out to the patriarchy,” she says. Stupski met her first homosexuals at Harvard. She dated men. The summer between her junior and senior year she lost her virginity. “It wasn’t all that bad,” she says now.

Being in ROTC didn’t thrill her, either, but Stupski liked learning about the military, and sometimes she even joined in the ultrarigorous training of midshipmen on navy ROTC’s marine-corps option. Besides, you couldn’t knock a free ride through the Ivy League. Stupski’s ambivalence ended the summer before her senior year, when her unit joined an active-duty naval cruise. Stupski loved the sea, even loved standing watch. After graduation, she was assigned as a weapons officer on a cruise to the Mediterranean. She managed the ship’s Seawhiz antimissile guns — and a crew of fifteen enlisted men. She felt confident of her naval duties but felt more and more depressed about her sexuality. The more she thought about it, the more she realized she was gay. “I began feeling like a wimp because I hadn’t had the courage to come out sooner,” she says. “But I was afraid of that part of myself. I didn’t even know any lesbians in the military.”

Her lack of options haunted her. She could become one of the estimated 300,000 gays and lesbians in uniform — including close to 8000 ROTC cadets — who hide behind elaborate alibis and paper marriages. But that would be living a lie. After crying for all of one night, Stupski decided to just tell her commander the truth. “I believe it’s important for all gay people to be honest,” she says. “If I didn’t come out, I would just be contributing to the problem. I wanted to be part of the solution.” The next afternoon she was transferred to shore duty. Soon afterward, in September 1990, Stupski was discharged from the navy.

Stupski, who this year established the Hampton Roads Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America in the navy town of Norfolk, Virginia, agrees with the ACLU, which believes the military will back off completely from its gay-exclusion laws with-in the next few years. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney just two months ago shrugged off gay-exclusion laws as a policy he had inherited and called the security-risk justification for excluding gays from military service “a bit of an old chestnut.”

But the old chestnut still manages to bestow shame and disgrace on some 2000 servicepeople a year who find themselves dishonorably discharged from the military for being homosexual. “Martin Luther King said that sometimes you have to do things that aren’t safe and aren’t polite – you have to do it because it’s right,” Timmons says. “It’s time for Mr. Cheney to do something right.”

Back at camp Tyndall the drone of fighter jets gives way to crickets’ croaks, and a dozen guys surround Cadet Picht, shouting: “DON’T DO IT! Don’t Do It!” CTO Bilodeau’s doing his best to make her do it. Her neck tilts up defiantly; her eyes drill outward. Bilodeau’s mocking smile dogs her. “C’mon, Cadet Picht,” he teases. “You can’t help it! I’m too funny.” He pops his eyes, sticks out his tongue. Picht bites her lips. “DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!” The guys are getting nervous. Picht’s face glazes over into a stare. The guys cheer. Bilodeau leans down close to her face. He won’t let go. He sticks his thumbs in his ears and waves his fingers. Finally, she can’t stand it. She sniffles, snorts and then breaks out in a huge laugh.

It’s nearly dark. From the barracks you can hear Beach Boys tunes blasting down at the track. Larson is safely in her room. Cadets pull out shoe polish, irons, lint brushes, to cram for morning in these spare moments before lights out at 9:35. Sad murmurs float from room to room — the camp is two cadets lighter tonight. This morning’s last-place runner and a guy who just couldn’t hack the program are gone. “His parents pushed him into it,” someone says. “He tried hard, he didn’t want it badly enough.”

Nineteen days to go. Weariness melts the cadets’ rigid regulation façades. In the females’ rooms, sweet-voiced physics whizzes in Larson’s flight rub lotion onto their long muscular legs, giggle with roommates about boyfriends back home, dream of pizza. You might call them rabid patriots, you might call them feminist pioneers. They’d say they’re just being all they can be. They’d say they’re happy. 

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