Our next appointment was halfway across the post, in a teaching building. Over 80 recruits were busily examining the entrails of an M-16, the official weapon of the U.S. Army and its allies in all defense situations.
The four of us walked into the back of the room. In the space of time required for the 80 trainees to dismantle one weapon apiece, I observed the following: "Two male training officers, about 80 women, all in fatigues. Never get dirt on weapon. Keeping live ammo or cartridges a court-martial offense." One of the unoccupied training officers came to the back of the room to talk to me. Notepad in hand, I assailed him: "Do you think women learn how to handle weapons as quickly as men do?" Sgt. Hurlburt had disappeared. At that moment she reappeared. "Here's a coke, Miss Bennett. Would you like to step over here and discuss the rest of the schedule?"
Three days passed. Every morning I paid my entry visit to the Post Information Headquarters to see Colonel Merriweather. Every morning I asked to continue my journey that day alone. "Sgt. Brownwen goes with you to help answer your questions," Colonel Merriweather explained. "What is it that you haven't seen that you'd like to see?" she asked. "Well, I've been here for three days and I haven't seen any trainees yet."
"Haven't seen any trainees? Sgt. Brownwen, what has Miss Bennett been seeing this week?" Sgt. Brownwen poured down her list. "First aid training, physical training, weapons, training, the WAC museum, evening retreat..."Colonel Merriweather looked at me in polite disbelief. "But there are trainees in all of those activities." She made a concession to me, though. "We'll let you eat in the messhall."
The messhall is large and bright. I was ushered in ten minutes before the trainees arrived "to get us through the line faster." Sgt. Brownwen chose a seat up front and placed me beside her. On the other side of me was Sgt. Hurlbut. In front of me sat Specialist Burke. "Good coleslaw," Sgt. Hurlbut remarked, with a full mouth.
I decided to put the three to some use, to let them answer the questions they had been assigned to me for. "I see the girls coming in the messhall are all wearing fatigues. How long have women been training in fatigues?" I asked. "Golly, I don't know." said Sgt. Brownwen. "Five months?"
"Maybe a year," said Sgt. Hurlbut.
Specialist Burke, heretofore silent, pulled me aside as we left the mess. "They're under orders from command not to give reporters any more information than they specifically request--and not to volunteer anything." Sgt. Hurlbut emerged from the mess just then, and saw the two of us chatting. She stepped back and began whispering to Sgt. Brownwen. That afternoon, Specialist Burke was assigned to cover an awards ceremony for the local paper.
On my last day at Ft. McClellan, I talked to some trainees. We were out on the firing range, hot sun beating everyone, including the two plump information officers, into a state of docile submission. They sat on bleachers at the far end of the field, at a safe distance from all the trainees. Midway through the afternoon, I went to the "latrine." "Back soon," I told them.
Half an hour later they found me under the trees helping trainees disassemble their weapons and writing furiously in my notebook. "I'm just in the army for the money," one trainee was telling me when Sgt. Hurlbut walked up. A sudden silence fell over the group and two or three of the girls shook their long hair down over their nametags. "Where should we go next?" I sighed.
Finally I talked to a young lieutenant. She outranked the two information officers, so we were let more or less alone. Faced by a sympathetic, non-military listener for perhaps the first time, she poured out her woes. "There's absolutely no room for initiative in the army. Commanding officers are suspicious, they're constantly on your back, there is an incredible amount of backbiting and spying going on and promotions depend on who you snuggle up to."
A week later, I was back in the city, trying to make sense of my sparse notes. The only interview that had been conducted in semi-privacy had been with the young lieutenant. It was the only one that--while I couldn't prove it to be true--I couldn't discount immediately as false by reason of official observation. I was preparing to transcribe my notes on our conversation when a letter came addressed to me.
"Dear Miss Bennett," it read. "I enjoyed talking to you at Ft. McClellan. I hope I gave you some insight into what the other side of army life is like. However, I am due for promotion in a few weeks, and should anything I said to you appear in print, it could adversely affect my chances. For my sake, please do not use my name. Thank you. Sincerely."