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Army strong: The lives of Georgetown’s female cadets
“Sometimes I feel like it is a love-hate relationship,” said Chloé Nalbantian (COL ‘15), a cadet in Georgetown’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program. To her, even though the camaraderie and team spirit of the squad is rewarding, the ROTC program is a huge physical and psychological commitment. Cadets need to wake up early in the morning for physical training three times a week while still fulfilling the rigorous academic requirements of both the ROTC program and Georgetown University.
Georgetown students are enrolled in various ROTC programs around the city. While the majority of them are enrolled in the Army program based on campus, some take on other branches of the military at George Washington, American, and Catholic Universities. The first Georgetown Corps of Cadets was formed in 1791, and following the long tradition, the Hoya Battalion has consistently placed in the top 100 programs offered in the country. Since 1918, over 4,000 men and women from the Georgetown ROTC program have been commissioned into the military. The ROTC program has given these students an opportunity to study at a prestigious institution while following their desire to serve their country.
At the same time, ROTC programs across the U.S. have not always lived up to their mission of training young scholars, athletes, and soldiers. One year ago, the Stanford Women’s Coalition rejected the ROTC program offered there because, as reported in The Stanford Review, it failed to “adequately address the sexual violence, rape, and sexual assault of women serving in the military,” igniting a nationwide debate on the role that women and sexual minorities play in the military.
At the national level, sexism and the marginalization of homosexuals have historically been suppressed and covered up to avoid scandals, and women enrolled in those programs during recent decades did not always enjoy the proper degree of comfort they deserved. Although programs in other parts of the country continue to experience trouble integrating women and sexual minorities, Georgetown has been a leader in welcoming these underrepresented groups.
While talking about the issues facing women in ROTC at Georgetown, Nalbantian recognized that the high percentage of men in Georgetown Army ROTC led to a disproportionate level of machismo in the program. Yet she did not regard it as a major issue, considering the mild chauvinism as a characteristic, but not necessarily a detractor, of the program.
That is not to say that Nalbantian’s perspective is universally shared. A different woman in the program had in fact voiced concern with some sexually insensitive jokes on the part of some male cadets in the program. “I would understand if the girl thought it was offensive,” Nalbantian said. “But it was never malicious.” She noted that even though, at times, women in the program overheard sexist jokes, the men in question “didn’t want to do it intentionally. It is just what happens.”
Nalbantian still has a distinctly positive view of the program, saying the camaraderie helps the cadets face everyday challenges.
“Once, a cadet got punched in the face and went to the hospital,” she recalled. “Everyone visited him.”
The sense of collectivity and solidarity goes beyond any passing joke, making the ill-advised humor ultimately little more than a nuisance for female cadets. According to Nalbantian, the battalion’s sense of camaraderie vastly outweighs any differences between cadets. “People are just there to help you,” she said.
Female students enrolled in ROTC at Georgetown ultimately emphasize the strength and commitment of their peers and themselves above any distinctions about their sex.
“My name is Smith, and I am a cadet participating in the Hoya Battalion Army ROTC Program. You may have seen me around campus… [r]unning U-Boats on the Exorcist Stairs at 6:30 in the morning, hollering cadence to try to get my fellow cadets to march in step, taking a physical fitness test at Ellington Field, lining up in full cadet battle-rattle to head to a field training exercise at Fort A.P. Hill, or laughing outside of the Car Barn after sitting through a three-hour Military Science class,” Cadet Lieutenant Colonel Margaret Smith (GPPI ’13) wrote in an email. “I am a future leader and I take my role seriously.”
As the commander of Hoya Battalion, Smith is in charge of about 120 ROTC students from four schools in the D.C. ROTC consortium. She is an active-duty Sergeant in the Army studying at Georgetown for graduate school as a Green to Gold cadet in the ROTC. As part of the program, Smith will be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army this May.
“Now, if I were to ask you if I were male or female based upon the information given above, you’d have no clue. In fact, the only thing you can really tell about my physical appearance is that I am green—army green,” Smith wrote in an email to the Voice.
This sentiment is shared by Cadet Valerie Palermo (COL ’15), a cadet hoping to be contracted starting next semester. “I see myself as a cadet, not a female, while in ROTC,” she said. “We use last names when we speak to one another—Palermo, or Cadet Palermo. We wear the same uniforms, and we do the same exercises.”
When asked whether she has experienced any discomfort in the ROTC program due to her gender, or whether she had an opinion on previous cases of marginalization of women in other ROTC programs around the country, Palermo did not offer a response.
“I have not heard about these issues, and will not comment on them. ROTC demands a lot of hard work from all of us, because those who rise to the challenge will become qualified leaders,” she said.
While problems may have existed in the past or in other parts of the country, Palermo says she has never experienced sexism at Georgetown Army ROTC. “I have always felt accepted by my comrades and superiors. Georgetown ROTC cadets share a close bond, and, in my opinion, the program does a good job of fostering camaraderie.”
Palermo, like Smith, did not criticize any aspect of female life in the Georgetown Army ROTC program. And while Palermo seemed reticent to speak candidly, Smith was confident in her response: The ROTC program does not regard female cadets differently in any way than male cadets, and the fellowship of the group overcomes any possible division.
Major Karen Saravia, Recruiting Operations Officer of the Hoya Battalion, reaffirmed these sentiments. Last year the Battalion instituted a new program to help integrate female cadets into the ROTC.
“We actually began a ladies’ mentorship group last semester to give the cadets an opportunity to gather outside of regular training in a more relaxed environment,” Saravia wrote in an email to the Voice. “It gives us a nice opportunity to get together and discuss their level of readiness or what will be expected of them as military officers.
This type of program offers female ROTC students and more senior officers the opportunity to discuss their experiences in the military outside the rigor of day-to-day training and practice.
“It is nice for the cadre members to be able to share our experiences of our time in ROTC, deployments, and time on Active Duty as a female officer,” Saravia wrote.
While female cadets report that the ROTC community wholly accepts them, some women recognize the value in enrolling more women into the program.
“I wish there were more girls on it,” Nalbantian said. “It would be good for the guys if there were more girls around so they wouldn’t get totally absorbed in the male mindset.”
Nalbantian does not see the distorted gender ratio as the men’s or the program’s fault, but as a systemic imbalance that could be fixed by raising awareness of ROTC at Georgetown and by recruiting more heavily for women. “I am really grateful I did it,” Nalbantian said.
While she feels the ROTC program has room for improvement, Nalbantian is proud of her work. To any women who might be considering applying to Army ROTC programs, she says, “Don’t hold back. Go for it.”
Not all Georgetown students in ROTC follow the Army program offered at Georgetown. A smaller number of mostly female students are enrolled in the George Washington Navy ROTC program while remaining full-time Georgetown students. Nicholas Tsusaki (SFS ’15) is the squad leader of the Navy program, while majoring in Regional and Comparative Studies with a focus on Latin America and the Middle East. Even though he is one of the youngest members of the squad, he has risen to a leadership position in his second year.
Tsusaki, like the other students who participate in ROTC programs at George Washington University, admits that the format of the program is a major commitment. “It involves getting up early a lot,” Tsusaki said. He explained how the cadets in the Navy ROTC program commute independently to Foggy Bottom every day. Tsusaki admits, “You have to make sacrifices when it comes to your social life.”
When talking about women in the program, Tsusaki said that there have not been any incidents of discomfort of sexism since his arrival. There are more women than men in the program, many of whom are enrolled in the ROTC’s nursing track. Tsusaki highlighted how five of the seven in the Georgetown Navy group are female, and that four out of five of the highest-ranking individuals in the Georgetown Navy chain of command are women. He also noted that all cadets are regarded equally in both academics and physical training. “The workout serves for unit cohesion,” Tsusaki said.
By all accounts, any instances of sexism or marginalization are minimal or too far in the past for any current students to remember. But while women have been able to serve in the military for decades, gays have only been able to serve openly for a period of months. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Sept. 20, 2011 fundamentally altered how the military regards homosexuals, ending institutionalized, regulatory discrimination of gays in the military. Attitudes change more slowly than de facto policy.
When asked about how gays are treated in the Navy ROTC program, Tsukasi said that, in accordance with Navy policy, the program not only enforced the repeal of DADT, but also instituted a new program for teaching diversity standards on issues of sexual orientation.
“The Navy has trained all personnel on the repeal of DADT,” Tsukasi said. “We also receive other diversity training to make midshipmen aware of the Navy policies regarding these issues.”
Faced with differences in gender and sex, the shared commitment and understanding of the students in Georgetown ROTC overrides any obstacles to unity. “Midshipmen have a great sense of camaraderie, especially at Georgetown, because there are so few of us,” Tsukasi explained.
He also attested that Georgetown ROTC has not experienced any problems accepting students of other sexual orientations.“Based on my experience, the support system from the other midshipmen and our advisors typically prevents midshipmen from feeling disenfranchised. We all want to commission together as a class.”
While these Hoyas’ strong commitment to ROTC could imply that it detracts from the traditional Georgetown experience, cadets vehemently reject the notion. “ROTC didn’t take away anything from the Georgetown experience,” Nalbantian said. “It just added to it.”
Others agreed that even though it can be a monopolizing time commitment, a cadet can organize his or her time in an efficient way. “ROTC is comparable to a varsity sport to many, in terms of time commitment,” Tsukasi explained. “Not to me though—you can decide how involved you want to be.”
ROTC at Georgetown encourages involvement in activities beyond the military, to better develop the individual in Georgetown’s tradition of cura personalis. “Many of our cadets spend summers and holidays doing cultural enrichment programs which will help them better understand the variety of cultures that they will be exposed to as military officers,” Saravia wrote. “We also encourage volunteerism both on campus and in the community as an opportunity to share with others.” Except for the inevitable frustration with the early morning practices, satisfaction with ROTC runs high. “I’m actually going back to SAC fair to sign up for a bunch of stuff!” Tsukasi said.
Some cadets, however, suggested improvements in how the cross-university programs treat academics. For example, Georgetown students enrolled in the Navy ROTC programs at GW do not receive credits for classes they are required to take there, which do not factor into their GPAs.
Navy scholarship awards are divided into three tiers: engineering majors are preferred over math and science majors, who are themselves placed above all other majors, including international affairs or foreign language. Tsukasi complained about this policy. The priority list does not reflect the pragmatic contemporary necessities of modern deployment.
Contemporary conflict “requires soft power and smart power in addition to technical ability, which is still extremely important,” Tsukasi remarked. “There should be more for ‘non-technical’ majors.” In certain situations a soldier who is conscious about the culture and population he or she is interacting with might be more useful than a mechanical engineer. “Having a junior officer speak the native language is a great resource,” Tsukasi said. “There is a greater need to be able to work with the local population as well as foreign militaries.”
While women and sexual minorities face additional challenges across the country because of who they are, Georgetown fulfills ROTC’s ideal training and service as one unit—united despite its members’ diversity. “Joseph S. Nye, former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University once wrote that the U.S. Army is ‘a place where Americans can be what we all have promise to be,’” Smith wrote. “He’s right: I am a cadet and soon I will commission as an officer. That is my goal and that is what I want out of this program.”
“The best thing about the ROTC program is that we learn to work as a team,” she continued. “One where gender, race, ethnicity, and age do not matter. My experience is not different from what the other cadets in the Hoya Battalion experience. I just happen to be a female on an all-Army team.”