When the U.S. Army announced that it would open the infantry to female soldiers, you could almost hear the sound of keys popping off computer keyboards around the country, as everyone took to the internet with an opinion — mostly the opinion that the Army was doomed. But last week, it finally happened: The first female soldiers graduated from infantry training, with as little fanfare as possible, and everyone seems to have survived so far.
Like other branches of the military, the Army is organized by Military Occupational Specialities (MOS), each with a code. The infantry MOS is 11B, and until now, it was one of several that was closed to female soldiers. Called the “Queen of Battle,” the infantry is defined by the U.S. Army website as “the main land combat force and backbone of the Army. They are responsible for defending our country against any threat by land, as well as capturing, destroying and repelling enemy ground forces.”
More specifically, the infantry carry rifles and walk (and walk and walk and walk) to combat. (Though Airborne infantry first jump out of planes, Air Assault first rappel out of helicopters, and mechanized first ride in armored vehicles before they walk.) When you read about a “firefight,” it’s often the infantry. When you read about “close quarters combat,” it’s often the infantry. And when you read, “But all soldiers get infantry training,” it means that all soldiers are trained to shoot and fight, but for the infantry, it is their main focus and job.
The image of the infantryman is extremely masculine: Think Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan, Mel Gibson on We Were Soldiers, or John Wayne in… lots of things. Or, maybe most famously, the entire company in Band of Brothers.
Though other countries have had female infantry soldiers for many years, the U.S. Army only began to train female infantry officers recently, following the 2013 lifting of the military’s ban on women in combat. Capt. Kristen Griest became the first female infantry officer in 2016, shortly after being among the first female soldiers graduated from the Army’s notoriously difficult Ranger School.
The first female soldiers to complete Ranger School were highly publicized, but this time, the Army made plans to keep the new infantry soldiers from being bombarded with press, whether negative or positive. They allowed only The New York Times and the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (the local paper of Columbus, Ga., where the soldiers trained at Fort Benning) to cover the soldiers’ graduation.
According to The New York Times, the only standard that was different for the female recruits at basic training was that they were not required to have their heads shaved upon arrival, but some did it anyway. The male and female recruits also slept in separate rooms, with the same uncomfortable beds and scratchy blankets that are a staple of everyone’s basic training stories. Of the 32 female recruits who began basic training, 18 completed it — a success rate that is slightly lower than that of male recruits.
Those 18, however, made it through the same grueling process that infantry soldiers have endured for generations.
One of those who made it, Pvt. Irelynn Donovan, told The New York Times,
Though it wasn’t mentioned in the graduation ceremony, and we are all rightly downplaying it, that’s just what she and her fellow infantrywomen did.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, head of Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that female soldiers can succeed in combat, though until now they have not been able to do it as part of the infantry.
“We saw it can work,” he told The New York Times, “And now we have a generation that just wants to accomplish the mission and have the most talented people to do it.”