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Friday, December 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Co-Ed Basic Training: Who Has Time To Misbehave? -- Soldiers Marching And Eating Together

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

COLUMBIA, S.C. - If you think the Army's decision to go co-ed will do to basic training what it did to college dorms in the 1970s, the soldiers at Fort Jackson will set you straight.

Just stop by the gun-cleaning table near Firing Range 13, where five female soldiers in camouflage fatigues are pulling apart M-16 semi-automatic rifles.

"Well, I've heard of some risky behavior," one woman says. But she stops when the four others look up from their guns.

Like men sneaking into women's bunks?

"No way," she says, looking at you like you're crazy.

Kissing?

"Nooo," she says, shaking her head and rolling her eyes.

Then what?

"Well," and she lowers her voice and looks around, "I saw one guy walk past a girl and brush up against her."

The soldier talking is one of 240 in Company C of the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry at Fort Jackson. It is the first at Fort Jackson - and the fourth in the country - to go through co-ed training since the U.S. Army reinstated it last month.

There are good reasons why she doesn't see any more interaction than that during basic training.

For one thing, soldiers say, the training is grueling. They are up at 4:30 a.m. and work until 9 at night. Then, while everyone is watching, drill sergeants scream in their faces so loud you can see the veins in their necks from 15 feet away: "This isn't Burger King, soldier. You can't have it your way."

And, finally, there are the regulations. Since Nov. 1, it's been illegal for soldiers in basic training at Fort Jackson to hold hands, hug, kiss or have sex with each other. It's also an offense to say anything sexually explicit, suggestive or obscene to another recruit.

Just entering the living quarters and latrines of members of the opposite sex could get them hauled before their commander for a disciplinary proceeding. Violators could lose some of their pay or end up restricted to the post.

You can hear the fear in recruits' voices when they talk about the soldier whose sergeant heard him call a woman a "bitch." They're not sure what his punishment will be; they just know it will be bad. And that's more than enough to keep everyone else in line.

"I'm just trying to keep focused on what I'm doing," 18-year-old Pvt. William Remillard from Albany, N.Y., says when you ask how he likes having women around. "I want to get out of here like everybody else."

What the army calls "gender-integrated basic training" was tried from 1978 until 1982, then abolished "based on a perception that the men were not being physically challenged enough," says Army spokesman Harvey Perritt. Last year, Army officials decided to test it again. The results showed that performance was the same in all-male, all-female and co-ed units. They also showed that co-ed units raised the morale of women without lowering the men's, Perritt says.

And that's why Secretary of the Army Togo West decided to reinstitute it at Fort Jackson and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. They are the two army posts where women go through basic training, Perritt says. Other posts focus on combat training - jobs women are still forbidden by Congress to hold - and only train men.

At Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic-training facility, the change means that from now on the 50,000 soldiers trained there every year will be in co-ed units.

In some ways, men and women will still be treated differently. For example, men are required to do 32 push-ups in two minutes; women, 13. Men and women won't be together for personal hygiene or rape-prevention classes and will still be assigned buddies of the same sex.

Basic training went co-ed at Fort Jackson Oct. 14 when enough enlistees - 120 men and 120 women - arrived to fill Charlie Company. Since then, the soldiers have been marching together, eating together, throwing grenades together, even sleeping in the same barracks - men on the second floor, women on the third.

A man in a foxhole learning to shoot has a woman lying beside him, giving pointers and helping him aim. A woman doing push-ups is paired with a man who bends over her, straddling her legs and holding her hips in his hands so he can help her up when her arms give out.

What is all that doing to the Army?

Male recruits say drill sergeants would be tougher on them without women around. Women say the men make it more fun.

"The guys don't put the girls down," says Rebecca Cripps, 27, who was working on a master's degree before boot camp. "We do have other problems. We talk too much."

When a soldier is caught talking, especially if it's at the same time a drill sergeant is, an entire platoon can pay for it - in extra push-ups, for example. Are there other problems?

"There are a few," says Deanna Scott, an 18-year-old enlistee from Sierra Vista, Ariz. Several soldiers say that male and female members of a squad don't always get the same information at the same time, because they're in separate living quarters.

Still, Scott and other women say the men give the women an extra push.

"They boost your morale," says Billie Kelsey, 18, of North Charleston, S.C. "And they make it a lot more fun. I'm enjoying the hell out of myself."

Commanding officers like the competition it creates.

"The young female soldiers are eager to prove that they're competitive with the males," says Capt. Robert Hartley, who oversees the second co-ed company at Fort Jackson. "And the young males are slightly intimidated by that, and it pulls them along."

"Guys are usually lazy when they're around males," says Sylvia Binder, the only female drill sergeant in C Company. "And the women? They work harder because they can't show they're weak."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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