Female Drill Sergeants in a 'Man's Army'
Sex scandal will only make a tough job tougher, they say
FORT JACKSON, S.C.
From dawn to dusk, six days a week, Staff Sgts. Sandy Diaz and Shanna Price try to turn Generation X's melting pot into an Army that can shoot straight and march to a drummer not their own.
As two of the Army's 2,000 drill instructors, they have one of the toughest jobs in the military. For the eight weeks of basic training, they embody the Army's proud past and enforce its Kevlar-tough discipline. As women, they also represent the Army's future.
The demands on drill sergeants are so extreme that the Army will allow only a few to serve as long as 36 months. Volunteers for the job must undergo psychological testing. The Army's logic seems to make sense: What kind of person would volunteer for this job?
But it will only get tougher, Sergeants Diaz and Price agree, after the recent sex scandal that emerged from allegations against male drill sergeants at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and other bases around the country. They say the fallout could taint what is otherwise an honorable group of professionals doing their best in an environment fraught with ambiguity and political correctness.
When drill sergeants discipline unruly privates, will they now claim abuse at every turn? Will frightened young recruits see sexual overtures where none exist?
Their job is made all the more difficult, they say, by one other immutable fact.
"It's a man's Army. We have to be tough on women. Otherwise they'd never survive," says Diaz, described by a former battalion commander as "the toughest woman I've ever met."
Like many of the Army's several hundred female drill sergeants, the two instructors say their job may be even more complicated than that of their male counterparts.
"Men hate taking orders from women," Diaz says. "We have to prove ourselves, even when we're wearing this hat."
Today, 1 in every 5 recruits is female and it's clear the half-million member Army could not function without women. For the recruits who encounter Diaz and Price in Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 34th Regiment, basic training is a grueling experience. Any women who tries to flirt with a male drill sergeant will soon be confronted by Diaz, whose demeanor can be intimidating - no matter what the gender.
Price, whose career has taken a fast track, admits that she, too, is often more demanding of women than she is of men. She hopes many will realize early what challenges await them when they move to permanent assignments.
For the soft-spoken Price, military life began on a sour note. At basic training in 1990, a male drill sergeant propositioned her. When she refused to have sex with him, he made her do extra pushups and threatened her. Price told her parents about the incident, and they wrote their congressman in Louisiana. Later, during advanced training at Fort Jackson, Price heard that her former drill sergeant had been arrested and charged by Army investigators.
"It made me a stronger person," Price says of the incident, adding that perhaps she can help others because of the experience.
As they discuss the rigors of drill sergeant duty - 16 hour days, enduring stress - Price and Diaz sound a bit like their male counterparts. Both believe the Army has gotten too soft on trainees. Both wonder if "outsiders" like women's groups and Congress are chipping away at the discipline necessary for the military to succeed.
Diaz, who went through basic training 15 years ago, says she has never been sexually harassed. She sounds wistful describing several drill sergeants at Fort Dix, N.J., who were as mean as junk-yard dogs.
"We need to keep the politicians away. Are we making soldiers or Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts?" Diaz asks, her sentiments echoed by Price.
"They are zeroing in so much on drill sergeants these days and they're not thinking about the kind of soldiers we're putting out on the street," Price says. "There are good drill sergeants who could be better, but they're afraid."
When the Army began grouping men and women together in basic training three years ago, both Diaz and Price were skeptical about how it would work. Today, they see many benefits, including the challenge that many women face by having to shoot, hike, and run alongside men. But there are downsides as well. Perhaps the biggest is that male drill sergeants are often afraid to work with women trainees for fear of being accused of fraternization, a potential career-ending offense.
"We are their guardian angels," Price says of her male colleagues, describing how she and Diaz often intercede to extinguish romantic sparks. "We can see when a female private is eyeing a drill sergeant. We can see it coming. The men love having us around."
Diaz, in Army lingo a "71 Lima," or administrative specialist, can detach herself from comrades when necessary. She describes bonding with male drill sergeants as a profound experience. Yet, were she to catch a male colleague attempting to romance a trainee, she wouldn't hesitate to threaten him, or if necessary, report the incident.
"You gotta be selfish," she says. "I came here to have a career and I'm going to leave with a retirement check."
Price nods in agreement, noting the sexual tension that is constant in military life today. In a gender-integrated Army, she has resigned herself to the guardian angel role and to being the best role model she can. "That's my job, that's our purpose. We're here to show them what a female is in the Army."