by Tammy Ortung
I look out across the lush green, football-field-sized parade grounds from the VIP booth at the top of the bleachers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. I stand, with about a dozen other training officers observing cadets decked out in their military blues, standing in formation, unit flags wagging proudly in the stale summer breeze.
“And the Warrior Flight Award goes to… Whiskey Flight,” the commander announces. I watch as smiles flit across many of my trainees faces. Unacceptable. I am proud of them, of course. This is a huge accomplishment. But I am both too exhausted and too well trained to show it.
I’d already had to reprimand one cadet after he swatted a bee while in formation. “Ma’am, it was about to sting me on the nose,” he had assured me. But smiling, or any movement whatsoever while in formation, is a sure lack of good order and discipline—a failure to maintain one’s military bearing. Anger can quickly escalate to a fist fight, and tears are a sign of weakness. Whenever anyone starts to step out of line, someone, especially in the training environment, always says, “Maintain your military bearing,” or “Get that bearing under control.”
Later that afternoon, I sit at my desk in the sparse, small office I share with another training officer who usually sits at the now empty desk to my left. His cadets are housed down the left side of the dorm hallway, mine down the right. Soon these ROTC cadets will finish this four-week mini boot camp and return to their universities for their junior years. Hopefully with more discipline. I walk over to the doorway and peek my head out the door.
“Cadet Johnson, report!” I yell down the hall. Yelling is commonplace here. It’s supposed to help assess how trainees deal with stress. Most, as one can imagine, do not handle it well.
I walk back to sit behind my desk and wait.
One knock sounds on the open door.
“Enter,” I say.
The cadet marches into the room, centers herself approximately two feet in front of my desk, and salutes.
“Ma’am, Cadet Johnson reports as ordered,” she says.
“Sit,” I command. She sits down, spine rigid, shoulders back, legs and feet together with her open palms placed flat down on the top of her thighs.
I open the folder and start verbally reviewing her performance. It is halfway through the training and my job is to address any shortfalls.
“You need to get your emotions under control,” I say. Earlier that week, she’d started crying when reprimanded for some small infraction, probably fearing she’d wash out of the program. That is every trainee’s fear.
Almost immediately tears form in her eyes and spill down her checks.
“Stop crying,” I say. This is a training environment. I am supposed to assess each cadet’s leadership potential and ability to handle stressful situations—war is life or death—and I can’t show compassion. I’m not supposed to.
The crying gets worse.
“Cadet Johnson, maintain your military bearing,” I order. “Get yourself under control.”
I wait, but she is sobbing now, almost hyperventilating, snotting all over herself.
To hell with it, I think.
“Cadet Johnson, put yourself at ease,” I say, handing her a box of tissues.
She pulls out three tissues, blows her nose, and tries to gather her bearing.
“Listen,” I say, leaning over the desk. “You really need to get these emotions under control. You’re a good cadet. You have the potential to make a great officer, but you need to figure out how to lock it up. If you let your people see you cry, they’ll think you’re weak. No matter how great a leader you might be, your credibility is gonna go right out the door.”
She is calmer now that I’ve turned off training-mode and am speaking to her like a human being. Her eyes are slightly swollen, but the tears have stopped.
“Ma’am, can I ask a question?” she asks. I nod.
“Do you ever get emotional?” When I start to speak, she continues. “Cause when we won Warrior Flight, you didn’t even crack a smile.”
“I was smiling on the inside,” I say.
I can’t tell her of all the times I’ve completely lost my military bearing. Of the times I’ve snotted all over myself and been viewed as weak. She needs to know it can be done. Some women have adapted, some have managed to maintain their military bearing in sleep deprived, stressful situations. She will have to learn for herself that as a woman, she will need to work twice as hard to be viewed as an equal—and in some eyes, she never would be considered equal. She will need to experience first-hand how difficult it can be for a woman in the military.
“You okay now?” I ask.
“Yes ma’am,” she says.
“Okay, lock it up, put yourself back at attention, and report out.”
She smiles in understanding, before donning her military bearing like an invisible shield. She finally seems to understand that it is both her protector and an instrument of power she needs to master.