Another Unintended Consequence of Females in the Infantry

| February 26, 2013 | 30 Comments

The other day I wrote here that an unintended consequence of females being allowed to serve in infantry units was that their inability to keep up physically with their male counterparts could hamper their prospects for promotion. One of the commenters (I always read comments on my writings because someone inevitably points out something I’ve missed) noted that there could be a much more basic physical reason for women to avoid serving in the infantry. And as anyone who has ever served in the infantry well knows, he made a very valid point.

And that point is simply this: For anyone who wants to maintain a youthful visage, the infantry is probably your absolute worst career choice. The cumulative effect of all those years in the woods, the mountains, the desert, and always in the sun, leaves the average infantry senior NCO with a face that looks twenty years older than its true age. The accounts among infantry veterans abound of NCO’s in their thirties who look like they are in their fifties or even sixties. My own anecdote:

An old buddy from the 101st came to visit in Pensacola in the late 70?s. I’d gotten out after six years to get my degree on the GI Bill. He’d stayed in the intervening ten years and was now an E-8 first sergeant. When we met him at the airport, I was stunned by how lined and weather-beaten his face was at the age of 35, a year younger than me. He looked to be in his fifties. At the house, while he was unpacking in the guest bedroom, my wife’s first words when we were alone was, “He’s younger than you are? You’ve got to be kidding. He looks more like your father.”
Another commenter recounted the story of a hard-living, hard-driving, SFC platoon sergeant in his combat engineer company, whose subordinates were so convinced the old geezer had to be at least in his sixties that they got up a pool to pay whoever could guess closest to his age. The “geezer” won. He was thirty-seven.

Mind you now, this doesn’t happen to everyone but it does so frequently enough that such stories are quite common in the combat arms units, particularly in the infantry. When I joined the Army in 1959, I was trained by a series of NCO’s who had served in the Korean War and a few who were WWII veterans. Most of them looked like they could have been WWI veterans. The infantry is a hard, hard life that extracts a high payment from those who choose it. Perhaps recruiters should be required to issue an aging-related health warning of sorts to young female prospects:

We are required to advise you, prior to your signing this contract of enlistment, that a career in the infantry can result in your resembling this before age forty.

That should really shorten the lines…

Category: Military issues

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  1. Old Trooper says:

    Many of the senior NCOs in my unit fit the description that you talk about.

  2. LanceCooley says:

    I like it! An appeal to feminine vanity!

    The same thing happened at Kings Bay, our SGTMAJ was maybe 40 but looked 60, white hair and all; crazy, hard muthatrucka still ran no less than 6mi a day.

  3. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    Yeah, well, that’s true what you say but I don’t know that it matters much to bull dykes. Personallly, I can’t see a former or future Miss America in such an outfit.

  4. MGySgtRet. says:

    Jonn, don’t know what you are talking about. I did 21 years in the grunts and I am still pretty as a picture!!!!

  5. fm2176 says:

    I’ll put it this way: Justin Timberlake and LMFAO drew the inspiration for their songs (“Sexy Back” and “Sexy and I Know It”) from me. Okay, okay, I don’t look that old to my daughters’ friends, but some have still pegged me at being in my forties.

  6. NR Pax says:

    And of course, Terminal Lance explains it here.

  7. Ex-PH2 says:

    Oh, stop it. We girls aren’t that vain. Are we?

  8. Spade says:

    How many of you guys know somebody who’s disabled due to knee/back problems and never got hit by enemy fire?

    (As an aside, I got a M1 carbine and was putting together some gear to carry magazines while hiking. You can find pics of infantrymen fighting with M1 carbines in WW2 and Korea carrying a carbine, two mags on a belt, and a canteen. I was somewhat shocked.)

  9. Hondo says:

    Ex-PH2: I don’t care if they’re vain or not – telling anyone, male or female, that they’re going to end up looking like the Lebanese Leftist Hag at age 40 will get their attention. (smile)

  10. BK says:

    I wish it would have happened to me! Aside from gray hair, with nearly half my nearly 4 decades spent in infantry, I still get carded for my cigars. There are times I wish I looked the part, because the incredulity attached when I wax veterany all but demands I carry the DD214s around in the pocket.

    But I walk with a cane on wet/cold days, precisely because of the paratrooper knee. To paraphrase what Spade says, no one who has been light infantry smiles when they stand up.

  11. Anonymous says:

    All well and good but as noted by many on this site, this move is not about patriotic duty, camaraderie, warrior ethos, making the military better or any of those things. It’s about officers careers. For whatever the reason the left gets a trouser chub over fantasies of the female Petraeus. And these officers who want the combat check box checked on their OER have the luxury of moving around to different position. The enlisted soldier does not. So while the vision of the grizzled senior NCO is accurate it means absolutely nothing to the ‘army of me’ officers running things because they won’t be living in the woods or desert for their whole careers. They’ll check the box, get their LT time, captain time, and move to a position in a university to get their masters, or work at the pentagon, or a army hospital for years living the grunts to carry on.

  12. Ex-PH2 says:

    @11, OK, but what about the enlisted women? They’ll get the brunt of the grizzled look that the female officers won’t get, per your input.

    Note to self: alwasy wear heavy duty sunblock when out in the weather. And grease up before going out into the cold.

    What? You guys never heard of that? Moisturizer acts as a vapor barrier in the cold, keeps your skin from drying out. I did that for foxhunting in Virginia — six hours galloping cross country, through the bush and over jumps after a red-coated varmint — and schooling horses and then later, for practice ice hours at the rink. Keeps you a little bit warmer, too, becuase it blocks water from evaporating through your pores, which happens regardless of the temperature. I found it adds a half hour of protection from the cold when standing around on the ice, when I taught kids to skate.

  13. Hondo says:

    Anonymous: if that’s the expectation, folks are going to find out quite quickly that it doesn’t work quite the way you describe. Even in the officer ranks, an individual will have to stay in a combat arms branch and have many if not mostly unit assignments to be competitive for selection to O6 and above.

    My info below is somewhat dated, but I don’t think things have changed that much. Nor do I see it changing all that much in the future, either.

    Outside of the Army Material Command, the 4-star billets in the Army are almost always filled by combat arms officers (and the AMC commander often has a combat arms background as well). Selection for 4 stars typically requires success at the 3-star level – which equates to a successful command of a 3-star command, and usually command of a Corps or one of the 3-star Army-level commands (e.g., USARSO or ARCENT). Selection for 3-star assignments and command typically requires a successful 2-star command – e.g., a Division. These are combat arms billets; non-combat arms types “need not apply”.

    The rationale is simple. People leading an Army in combat at the executive levels (GO/FO) need to know the business and have long experience in same.

    Division and other 2-star commands are selected from among serving BGs. Outside the material development community, making BG almost always requires successful command at the O6 level. In turn, selection for O6 and for O6-level command (the former does not imply the latter; they are selected via separate board actions) in turn generally requires successful command at the O5 level (particularly true for O6-level command, not so much for promotion to O6). This in turn virtually always requires successful command at the O3 or O4 level, plus certain key staff assignments at the O4 level (typically XO and S3 in combat arms). Selection for command at the O3 level (O4 for aviation) usually requires having been an outstanding O1/O2 and junior O3.

    Officers competing for promotion do so against all other officers. However, competition for command is against their branch peers. Therefore, for command selection they’re being judged based on comparing their records against their professional peers within their branch. “Tourists” or branch transfers into the combat arms often don’t fare as well.

    The bottom line is that female officers going into the combat arms will need to plan on pretty much staying with that combat arms branch for their career if they want any hope of wearing stars. Spend too much time away from their branch, and they won’t be competitive for command at the O5 and O6 levels. No command at the O5 or O6 level will pretty much guarantee no BG’s star.

    In short: they’ll be spending half their career or more to that point as a combat arms officer in combat arms units if they want to be competitive. It’s not a situation of “one assignment as a LT or CPT checks the box” and you’re in like Flynn.

  14. Anonymous says:

    @12 Moisturizer and sunblock are advisable for sure.

    Not really following your response though. I was commenting on the me first/always culture of the officer corps, more than anyone’s ability to apply anti-aging countermeasures.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the info Hondo. I do understand the realities of branching, but I am jaded. The whole rationale behind this (that I am seeing out there) is to remedy the perceived detriment that the exclusion is having on the advancement of some officers, not that this will make the army more lethal. And that’s the wrong answer.

  16. Medic09 says:

    Part of that old visage is wisdom, in addition to weathering. ;-) So says *Sgt.* Medic09. ;-)

    And Spade is right: all of us, by middle age, have bad (pick your own, one or more) back, hips, knees, shoulders, elbows, etc. There’s a lot more aging going on than what shows on the face, and it continues to manifest itself in the years after we are done humping a pack and weapon.

  17. Twist says:

    I may be 38, but I’m 60 in Infantry years (it’s kinda like dog years).

  18. LanceCooley says:

    @8 spade, that would be me. My back is the reason I was discharged and I’ve never heard a shot fired in anger.

  19. Detn8r says:

    Twist, following that train of thought,,,Hell,,,I’m gonna be 72 in July!!

  20. Elric says:

    @8, 18,

    To be sure. Except for my balding grey hair my face looks youthful. Inside, not so much. Three knee scopes, a shoulder reconstruction, and facing my second cervical spine fusion is all part of the combat arms that keeps on giving. Having had multiple battalion and company commands, I’m sure that my experience is not unique and have many peers with significantly more time downrange. Bottom line- the lifestyle gets everyone eventually.

  21. ItAllFades says:

    5 years in the Infantry aged my body about 30 years.

  22. ComancheDoc says:

    FWIW “they” are looking into this aging thing…maybe i Can avoid the surgeries they say i need

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2012-08-06/veterans-aging-study-trauma/57608072/1

  23. Ex-PH2 says:

    @9 Hondo — That goat is a woman?

  24. David says:

    I understand the kneejerk reaction to women in the infantry, and to a pretty large extent I agree, but come on? There’ve been great points made about it, but this is not one of them.

    If there’s a woman who’s convinced by this argument that she shouldn’t go infantry, she would never have made it as infantry. The one woman I’ve met in the Army who I’d trust at my six in combat (she scores a 280 on the male standards – on the low end, but a 300’s within her reach) would probably just look at you with an incredulous expression if you told her THIS was a reason she shouldn’t go infantry. If someone wants infantry – male or female – their appearance should be a lot less important to them, than, say, duty?

    I mean, this is essentially the equivalent of telling men that they shouldn’t go infantry because they’ll see other naked guys.

    On a related note, I think it’s also a little ridiculous to state that the only reason women want to be in the infantry is because they’re hunting for promotions. The politicians’ reasons are different from the actual women’s reasons. And in a similar vein to earlier, if anyone, a man or a woman wants to join the infantry, they’d better have a lot better of a reason than wanting fast promotions if they want to make it.

    I’m not arguing that women should be allowed into combat arms – there’s too many good reasons that they shouldn’t – but it honestly seems at this point that you’re just picking tenuous connections at best and then throwing them out. Kind of like a lot of the liberals…

  25. Tactical Trunk Monkey says:

    This morning, I was reflecting upon this subject as I watched my class of Marines training on the .50 HMG…the females of the group had a VERY difficult time pulling the charging handle to the rear and turning the latch that locks the gun into full auto…

    Yep…let them in…I forsee another Jessica Lynch issue… “SSgt, my weapons jammed…”

  26. Mike says:

    Ha idk. I’ve seen quite a few e7s who don’t look that old. Most likely they will not want to stay grunt long…

  27. fm2176 says:

    #13 Hondo,

    Most officers may be unable to switch branches, but for the most part they are not subjected to the years of abuse enlisted Infantrymen are. While many Infantry and other combat arms NCOs get some staff time and other “breaks” from the line such as recruiting and Drill Sergeant duty, we don’t have the same career progression as our commissioned counterparts and seniors.

    Based on my experience, most E-grades progress as follows:

    E-1 to E-4: fireteam member, occasionally fireteam leader

    E-5 to E-6: fireteam/squad leader, potentially selected for three years Drill Sergeant or Recruiter

    E-6 to E-7: Platoon Sergeant and/or 1-2 years staff or special duty time (EO, IG, etc)

    E-8: Company First Sergeant and possibly Operations SGT time

    E-9: This is the first E-grade I know of where staff time is all but required; after a year or two as an OPS SGM, it’s on to CSM time for most at the battalion and maybe brigade level

    On the other hand, most officers I’ve talked with, including those who serve on staff with me, constantly fret about being away from a command position. Their progression usually goes as follows:

    O-1 to O-2: Platoon Leader 1-2 years; later company XO or battalion staff

    O-3: Battalion (BN)/brigade (BDE)staff; a few months at the Captain’s Course; eventually serve for a year or two as a company commander before going back to staff; If they are lucky they may get an additional non-combat arms command like an HHC or recruiting company

    O-4: BN/BDE/DIV Staff Wienie/battalion or brigade S3/Advanced Military Schooling/Maybe a shot at battalion or BDE XO

    O-5: more staff time or special assignments, more schooling/ideally picked up for battalion command and as Deputy Brigade Commander

    O-6: same as O-5 only hoping for BDE command and eventual assignment in O-7 position to get that first star

    O-7 and higher: I think we all know that Generals don’t put their bodies on the line much in this day and age

    In other words, it is entirely possible for an Infantry NCO to progress to E-9 without ever being away from the line. I cannot think of a single officer above the rank of Captain who hasn’t spent over half of his career behind a desk. Anyone wanting proof can visit a random US Army installation page and look at the command group. Most of the time, the Infantry brigades and battalions have a picture of a relatively fresh-faced Colonel beaming away at the camera over top of a bio filled with non-command assignments and schools that dwarf whatever command experience he has. His CSM, on the other hand, is usually much older looking and sports a bio filled with line assignments and usually with a statement such as “CSM Nobody has served in every Light Infantry position from Rifleman to Command Sergeant Major…”

    A couple of exemptions for officers to get more command time are 75th Ranger and The Old Guard. Of course, the latter is hardly line Infantry but it still takes a toll on the body. All Platoon Leaders and Commanders have to have successful PL/CO time behind them. For a while in TOG we had three Captains and a Major (one platoon never had a PL).

  28. Hondo says:

    fm2176: no argument with much if any of what you said. My point was that anyone thinking an officer has a prayer to make 4 stars with a single “box check” troop assignment in a combat arms branch is sorely deluded. They’ll need repeated successful commands and key staff assignments, all of which take a toll (Bn S3 and XO ain’t exactly easy assignments in the combat arms) to even be competitive for O6 command. And successful O6 command is only really the first real screen for BG.

    Further, they’ll have to be at least top-half successful (if not better) at all of their assignments to have even a prayer of selection for command as an O5. This means knowing the branch’s mission and tactics; being able to work with professional peers and subordinates; and having the leadership qualities to succeed – and the physical ability to “hang”.

    Yes, officer career paths end up with more “desk time” – in pretty much all of the branches. That’s the nature of the system. And yeah, the enlisted side of the house has it harder physically across the board; no argument there. But in the combat arms branches, successful troop leadership assignments and key Bn/Bde staff assignments are still necessary for success. And in those branches, physical ability and long-term endurance – repeated over years – is still required for success.

    If this plays out honestly (e.g., without DA-imposed gender quotas for the combat arms) I foresee a hugely larger attrition rate for female officers in the combat arms, particularly when it comes time for selection to O5 – and maybe earlier. As you get older, after your 20s physical abilities begin to decline (that’s why the APFT tables are hardest for in the early 20s). Women are in general starting from a lower potential point regarding strength than men – women as a group are smaller than men, have less muscle mass, and lower inherent cardiovascular endurance – and will thus need to work at a higher fraction of peak ability to meet the physical demands of the combat arms. As they pass age 30 – which happens shortly before the time an officer is considered for MAJ – the accumulated wear and tear of doing that for years will probably start to hit. And since it as a group they will already be working closer to their limit in order to “hang with the boys” and be successful, the effect of that accumulated wear and tear will IMO likely be disproportionate on females serving as combat arms O4s.

  29. Hondo says:

    Dave: I’m pretty sure that Poetrooper was being a bit “tongue in cheek” with the Helen Thomas photo and recommendation for warning. But he was doing it to make a point.

    Life in the combat arms, and infantry in particular, is an extremely harsh one. It does age you beyond your years. Anyone – male or female – considering that as a career should consider that fact before actively seeking such a career.

  30. fm2176 says:

    #28 Hondo,

    I realize what you are saying and my earlier post was hardly a good counterargument; I just wanted to ensure that other readers understand the difference between a twenty-plus year career as an NCO and as an officer.

    One thing I didn’t add, and that complements your point, is the fact that many–if not most–junior Infantry officers are PT studs. Most of the Platoon Leaders and Company Commanders I’ve had were capable of scoring well over 300 on the extended scale for the APFT. My first CO consistently did around 120 each or pushups and situps, and I’ve known many that run 2-miles between 10 and 12 minutes. In my day I was a stud of sorts, but the best I’ve ever done is 12:35, 86 situps, and 82 pushups.

    Admittedly, many females looking to branch Infantry would be at an advanced level of physical fitness. I still doubt that many would be able to even come close to my best run time or highest number of pushups, much less the outrageous scores their peers would put on the board.

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