by Sara Hammel
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In 1995, when women were still banned from most ground combat roles in the United States military and their supposed lack of physical strength used as a reason to keep them out, Army scientists in Massachusetts embarked on a groundbreaking study. Their mission: To determine if women could get strong enough to perform the military’s toughest jobs.
But this one didn’t turn out to be your average experiment. With female soldiers busy serving our country, the scientists were forced to get creative in recruiting test subjects. They turned to civilians to test out their 7-month regimen, putting out a press release and attracting some 80 applicants.
I was a young reporter just starting out in my career.
And despite all signs pointing to this being a frightening and arguably bonkers thing to do, I volunteered to go through a punishing workout regimen on a local Army base 5 days a week for 1 ½ hour a day. Joining me on what was then the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Command (USASSC) base in Natick, Mass. were 45 other women—including moms, teachers, a landscaper, a prison guard, a bartender, and one soldier—who came to change the rules. We formed a sisterhood like no other through 75-lb backpack hikes, 110-lb trailer pulls, shared pain, snowball fights, and a refusal to fail.
Think G.I. Jane meets Hidden Figures with a dash of A League of Their Own, and you get a picture of what it was like to be a part of the Natick Army strength study. (You can read more in this story marking the 25th anniversary. Spoiler alert: We nailed it).
I did not come from a military family, nor did I have friends in any branch of the service at the time. But the one soldier in the study, Pfc. Marion Cavanaugh quickly became a close friend to all of us. And in researching my new book, The Strong Ones: How a Band of Civilian Women Made Their Mark on the Army, published yesterday, I spoke to veterans and those on active duty, and over time I learned a few things. (I wouldn’t want to lump all servicewomen in together, so will simply share my own experiences):
1. They’re the last ones to brag—and the first to lift up other women.
I have found there is always something interesting to learn about a woman who’s served in the military. Always. Whether she thinks her experience is worth sharing is another story. When I was working out alongside Marion back in the day, she never complained (I did. All the time). I only found out later that she came to our intense 1:30 p.m. workouts after PT, which would sometimes include a 10-mile run.
When I caught up with her to research my book, I learned Marion had served as a program manager on the groundbreaking Cultural Support Teams (CST). She talked about the women who served in the CST with such pride and admiration—but it took some coaxing for her to speak as highly of herself. The same went for a young Marine I got to know named Catherine. Whose path to becoming an officer runs through The Strong Ones. She is such a badass that I was left open-mouthed. As I listened to her reel off the physical tests she endured—the Quigley, Cardiac Hill, endless marches carrying 90 pounds—as if it were another day at the office. (Catherine, by the way, is the twist ending in the book).
She would say to me in our interviews.
But there are tougher women than me. There are women doing more important things. Maybe. Perhaps there will always be someone out there we aspire to be. But our stories still matter, our voices deserve to be heard, and if you speak your truth to the world you might be surprised who’s there, listening to every word.
2. You won’t find a better, more loyal friend.
Marion was there for all us civilian test subjects as we struggled to hike five miles with our backpacks, or lift our heavy boxes, or run carrying sandbags; we all supported each other to get us through the toughest times. And again she was there for me unconditionally years later when she agreed to be featured in my book, talked it out with me as the pandemic changed our way of life, and checked in whenever we hadn’t talked for a while.
As for Catherine, now a First Lieutenant, one of the key things she said got her through Officer Candidates School (OCS) was her friendships. She explained, “The night before I graduated I couldn’t sleep. I knew I was going to have to leave all these girls. I realized there was no way I could’ve graduated without all of them. You don’t have your phone at OCS, but you can write letters. They gave us a lot of stationery, so I wrote a letter to every girl in the platoon thanking them. Going through that was a wonderful exercise; you don’t do anything alone.”
3. And finally…don’t fawn over every service woman you meet like she’s a celebrity or a real-life Captain Marvel.
It might very well creep them out. Sometimes I still do this. But seriously…I don’t think most of them like it.
You can read the whole story in Sara’s new book, The Strong Ones: How a Band of Civilian Women Made Their Mark on the Army. Watch the trailer for the book here.
Author Sara Hammel, a test subject and reporter with exclusive access to the study, traces the women and their results through the years, revealing how their efforts came full circle decades later. When all military jobs were opened up to women. Exclusive interviews with former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his Special Assistant Monica Medina, former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, and Shannon Faulkner add context to this historic shift in military policy. Anchoring the study firmly in the present.
Sara is an Award-winning journalist and bestselling author. She has written for Newsweek, People, The Sunday Times Magazine (UK), Glamour, Shape, and others. Famous Last Words.