Coffee cups in hand, smiling sweetly at each other across crossed legs and the crowded desk, we were nonetheless locked in mortal combat. I was a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. Age: 22. Sex: Female. Object: To find out anything I could about women's training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, home of the Women's Army Corps. She is Post Information Officer for the same Fort McClellan. Age: Forty-ish. Sex: Female. Object: To help me in any way she possibly could. In other words, we were deadly enemies.
We set out the terms of our battle. I: "You understand, Colonel Merriweather, that I am certainly not in any way trying to do an expose. I just want to determine women's attitudes towards the Army as a way of life." She: "Of course, Miss Bennett. I'm here to help you in any way I can. [confidentially] You know people around here are sometimes very secretive and sensitive about the press. [professionally] But of course, we in the journalism business know how important it is to get the facts. So if anyone gives you an answer to your questions that you think is not sufficient, why, you just come back to me. And to help answer any of your questions on the way, I'm going to assign Sergeant Brownwen to assist you."
Every person in the army, male and female, is given extensive training in the field of his or her specialty. This training ranges from the simple (a six-week clerical course, for example) to the complex (training in medical technology that takes almost a year). Whatever training Sgt. Bronwen had received had obviously been thorough and complete. She knew the key phrase for dealings with the press and she knew when to use it: "Miss Bennett, do you mind if I sit in on this interview?"
Fort McClellan is a very large and convoluted place. The installation covers 46,374 acres in northwestern Alabama, and is home for over 6000 people. In nearby Anniston, Alabama, the streets are arranged in a convenient grillwork pattern, and numbered accordingly. But the military in this instance is less regular than its civilian neighbors. Every street merges into a tangle of other streets. Each building resembles the next; there are no outstanding landmarks to help the visitor find his or her way around the post. A post information officer could be a valuable assistant to a confused reporter, supplying road maps, directions, schedules of training activities and names of commanding officers.
Instead, silent and dutiful, Sgt. Bronwen followed in my footsteps, a sheepdog in army clothing, her sergeants' stripes shining in the eyes of trainees I tried to interview. The army must have felt particularly sensitive that week: The first stop on the five-page, single-spaced typed itinerary of the visit of A. Bennett, Reporter, was WAC center information office where we picked up two more people to follow me. Specialist Joe Burke, information specialist for WAC center, watched Sgt. Bronwen, information specialist for Fort McClellan, who watched me. And Sgt. Laura Hurlbut, senior in rank to both of them, observed us all.
I glanced over Sgt. Hurlbut's shoulder at the schedule. 0800-0815, Courtesy Call, Commanding Officer; 0815-0830, Coffee; 0830-0900, observe physical training; 0900-0915, observe first-aid training; 0915-0930, observe weapons class; 1000-1100, observe WAC museum; 1100-1130, lunch.....
"You know, I've been to a lot of army bases already, and I already know a lot about how training works. I don't think I need to do any observing. What I'd really like to do is find some trainees and some young first lieutenants and just sit down and talk to them," I said brightly at the outset.
Sgts. Bronwen and Hurlbut exchanged glances. "We'll have to arrange that," Sgt. Bronwen said. "We'd better go, we'll be late for our first appointment," Sgt. Hurlbut said.
The courtesy call to the commander's office turned out to be a reporters' briefing, designed to prevent errors in reporting. A large artist's easel in the corner of a carpeted room held about ten posterboard diagrams, each bearing at the top the official seal of the WACS. The commanding officer, pointer in hand, whipped through the structure of the army, the structure of the base, the format of training, and the mission of the army. My notes for that briefing include: "WAC basic training: 1) battalion--basic training brigade--company--unit...." The rest went by too fast for me to catch.
"I hope you have a profitable stay," the commanding officer told me on the way out.
We moved summarily to the physical training field. The four of us got out of the Pinto and moved across the field to observe training. My notes from this part of the morning include: "Trainees, physical training, 0900, jumping jacks, green PT uniforms, looked tired." At 9:14 Sgt. Brownwen turned to me. Do you want to interview a trainee? She motioned to one of the girls who was picking up her ground cover. "Soldier--over here. Here's a trainee, Miss Bennett. Do you have any questions for the trainee?"
"Hi," I said to the trainee.
"Hi," she said to me.
"It's 9:15," Sgt. Brownwen said. "We'd better go to our next appointment."
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."