This Friday, October 16th, 2015, Major Lisa Jaster, the third woman to make it through the grueling Ranger School, is expected to graduate and walk away with her well-deserved Ranger tab. I’m no Army woman. I’m no fan of war or the need for a military. In fact, I’m a complete pacifist. But that does not keep me from being proud of trailblazers like Major Lisa Jaster, Captain Kristen Griest and 1st Lieutenant Shaye Haver to remind the world that we – women and men – are more alike than we are different and we [should] have equal access and opportunity in the world.
These women, these fantastic rangers, are each “one of the boys” you could say. Or not.
I used to be “one of the boys” and it was a compliment, then. Now I realize that it had to be framed that way just for me to be accepted among a gender that has always been considered superior in this culture I inhabit. Tomboy is a good thing, sissy is bad. The words we use are powerful; they teach others how to react to and treat people, from the way we talk to people on the street to the amount we write on their paychecks for the same work, experience, and education.
As a young child I ran around shirtless all the time in my hometown, Oriental, NC. It was normal. I was a kid. I played in ditches, climbed trees, played with legos and barbies, and I played dress-up. I wore hand-me-downs from my brother. I was a kid. Nobody cared.
In middle school when I began playing soccer I was proud of myself when I outlasted all the other two girls on the team who quit because they couldn’t handle it. I was proud because not only could I keep up with the boys but I was also faster than all of them. Our coach even held competitions for water by promising it to any of the boys who could run faster than me in all-out sprints across the length of the field at the end of each practice. They never could (not even long legged, tall, Danny Hughes) and I was always first in line for water. Really though, I outlasted the other girls because I could “handle” the bullying: the catcalls, the slaps on the butt, the jingles about my chest being flat as a pancake, and the one time a teammate asked me to scratch his chest and back – hard – with my fingernails, so it would leave marks.
In high school there wasn’t a soccer team until my junior year so I played on recreation and challenge teams, both coed and all-female. There weren’t enough girls to fill a team at my high school so, thanks to Title IX, I was granted access to play on the boys’ team once again. It wasn’t easy to get there. I recall the principal walking with me outside the main building of the school asking if I thought it was a good idea for me, a girl, to play with boys. I couldn’t understand why this was a such a big deal. These were guys I’d been playing with since fifth grade, what’s changed in the two years since we entered high school? The answer, it turned out, was not much except for the outside forces at play and a general change in vocal chords. I was either the dyke on the boys’ team or I was sleeping with all of them, according to the rest of the school. There was no middle ground or support, not vocally, anyway. I was a misfit because I chose to do something I loved without letting any obstacles get in my way. I was the girl who couldn’t be a girl.
Our coach was an ex-Navy Seal and he made us do portions of the Dirty Dozen – an extreme tactical fitness test created for adults – in practice. He enjoyed making us run group sprints for miles at a time and timed miles with a thirty-second rest before running the next mile faster to the point that we would be dry heaving. And he didn’t believe in hydration. His favorite abuse of power was forcing us on our backs for half of practice to do six inches, planks, and jack rabbits. During one angry practice after we lost a game (that he believed we should have won) he said the last two players to keep their legs raised six inches off the ground would get a water break and the rest would have to do more sprints until the end of practice. The whole practice up to that point had been running and sprints.
We all were. But my desire for water was greater than the rest and I held my legs in the air for nearly fifteen minutes, outlasting everyone else and earning water. I could not walk the next day.
I relive these memories when I think of the women and men facing the mental and physical challenges, hunger, and fatigue during Ranger School.
Coach Self treated me like one of the guys which was exactly what I wanted at the time. I was given no slack and I didn’t want any. Though I was proud of my position as the only female on the team, I knew (but knew better than to admit openly) that I was better than my teammates because I didn’t have the choice to be average. I had to run faster, kick harder, be more just to be seen as an equal. I had to plan my period-care around soccer because I knew it would be seen as a weakness to request to go to the bathroom to change a tampon.
I even downplayed the fact that I was a girl at times by stuffing socks in my underwear and confusing our opponents. I hated when referees would not blow the whistle when I fouled, leaving players on the ground in my wake. Joking about my own gender was a ticket to being more accepted on the team and it was a way to cover up my character flaw: having a vagina. Being as much a boy as possible meant I talked like one, walked like one, burped like one, cursed like one, and played like one. In my mind I was a guy until I walked off the field and became my mother’s daughter again. I assumed the role of whatever environment I inhabited and never stopped long enough to think about how much I was acting out of necessity. I was delighted when, in a news article, one of my teammates was quoted saying, “She’s just one of the guys.” In truth, I didn’t have the choice to be a strong athletic girl. I only had the choice between adding a symbolic penis or not playing high school soccer.
Back in August I remembered all this when the first two female Rangers earned their tabs. Not because of their journey shared in the news but because of the tears that flowed when I read this blog post by Brian Baker, the Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Sacramento. It was the first time I had been struck so deeply by the words of a man who openly shared that he understood (as well as he could) how hard women must fight just to be seen as barely equal – but even he had to be brought to this understanding with the help of his wife.
I offer my most sincere congratulations once again to Major Jaster and again to Capt Griest and 1st Lt. Haver. Let’s continue working for a world in which women and men are welcome to pursue any goal, any career, any role, without their gender being erected against them as a barrier.