Ernie Pyle, the infamous American war correspondent killed in action during the battle for Okinawa, once said that he loved the infantry because “they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”

It’s that kind of grit that has made the U.S. Army’s infantrymen famous the world over. They are known as the “Queen of Battle” — the frontline soldiers who “make the green grass grow.” They have also been part of the Army that, without question, has always existed without women.

That is, until May 19, when 18 female soldiers became the first to graduate from Fort Benning’s Infantry One Station Unit Training course and don the blue cords reserved exclusively for the Army’s infantrymen.

Due to the dangerous and physical nature of the infantry’s job, Infantry OSUT is considered the hardest training an initial-entry soldier can undergo. Most soldiers attend a stand-alone nine-week Basic Combat Training course, and then go onto their Advanced Individual Training, which focuses on schooling soldiers in their specific jobs. For prospective infantrymen, BCT and Infantry AIT are combined into one grueling, 14-week, combat-skills intensive course on Fort Benning’s Sand Hill training area.

U.S. Army photo
A U.S. Army Infantry soldier-in-training assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade, negotiates the Sand Hill Obstacle Course February 13, 2017, on Sand Hill.

The training “transforms civilians into disciplined Infantrymen who embody the Warrior Ethos in order to support an Army at war,” said Capt. Seth Davis in a recent statement released by the Maneuver Center of Excellence. Davis is the commander of A Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, the unit that conducted training for the first co-ed Infantry OSUT class in history.

It’s not unheard of for some infantrymen to find themselves deployed to active combat zones within months of graduating, so there is considerable pressure to pass only the most capable soldiers. Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment’s OSUT class began with 149 male soldiers and 32 female soldiers on Feb. 10. Only 18 of the female soldiers would graduate the course. Yet, as was the case with the first female soldiers to graduate Ranger School, rumors of standards being lowered began to circulate almost immediately. A source who spoke to the website Popular Military went as far as to claim that there was “a clear double standard between males and females in their training cycle, including lighter rucksacks and lower expectations.”

“With the male trainees, there were some that had our backs 100%, and some who didn’t want us to be there at all.”

But a newly minted female infantryman who spoke with Task & Purpose begs to differ. Haley Starnes, a humble 19-year-old Texan, was among those to graduate on May 19. “Infantry’s it, I don’t want to do anything else,” she said, speaking by phone from the holdover barracks at Fort Benning.

Growing up, Starnes was always drawn to physical activity. “I was an outdoorsy kind of girl,” she said. “I enjoyed huntin’ and fishin’ with my dad. I was a BMX bike racer, played every sport there is … ” She added that she had always wanted to follow her step-father’s footsteps into the world of professional bull riding, but it never panned out for her, much to his relief.

“I can tell you this much for sure,” Starnes’ step-father Casey told Task & Purpose. “She’s always been very athletic and head strong.”

Courtesy photos
Left: Haley Starnes swears into the Army. Right: Haley’s grandfather pinning her blue cord on at graduation.

When she first decided to enlist, Starnes intended to go to the Air Force or the Navy — “like my pawpaw,” as she put it. First, though, she would need to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, better known as the ASVAB, which is required of all enlistees.

“I couldn’t pass it to save my life,” Starnes admitted. The Navy recruiter didn’t seem especially interested in helping her improve, she added, but then she met an Army recruiter who made a real effort to help her, walking her through practice tests until he was confident that she could pass. The military has a “three strikes” policy when it comes to the ASVAB, so the final attempt could have meant delaying her military career for months if she didn’t pass. Fortunately, she scored a 31. “I just barely made it.”

Now fully qualified to join and faced with picking a military occupational specialty, Starnes found she disliked all of her options, except one: Infantryman. Her knowledge of the job, she admits, was pretty limited. “I honestly didn’t know much, I just knew they killed the bad guys.” Her recruiter offered a little more information. “He was like ‘do you like to hunt?’” she recalls. “And I was like ‘yeah,’ and he was like, ‘Okay, well it’s like that but just bigger game.’” (As a former recruiter myself, I recognize his approach — walking the careful line of explaining the brutality of the job while being careful not to scare an applicant away.)

Having already graduated high school, Starnes was spending her days working at a local Walmart, and she was anxious to begin the new phase of her life. “She wanted to go as quickly as possible,” her step-dad said. “In my mind, she didn’t want to give herself a chance to talk herself out of it.” Just over two months after signing on the dotted line, Starnes shipped out to Fort Benning, Georgia, to start her training as one of the first female Infantryman.

What she didn’t yet know was how rare she actually was.

“I personally didn’t know that I was going to be in the first group of females to do infantry,” she says now. Starnes and her peers hadn’t set out to break a barrier; being first was not something they’d asked for. Meanwhile, Starnes was insistent that the widespread assumption that she’d gotten an easy ride simply didn’t line up with her experience. So, she broke it down for me, step by step.

During the processing phase, which consisted of being issued gear and uniforms, as well as filling out a lot of paperwork, “there was a bunch of drill sergeants who didn’t want us there at all,” Starnes said. “Once we got to basic, the drill sergeants almost didn’t know how to talk to us in a way, but it got better over time.”

There were approximately eight women in each platoon, and they were fully integrated with their male counterparts. “The females did exactly what the males did no matter what,” Starnes said. “The only time we weren’t with the guys was when we slept in different bays.”

“If anything, the standards were upheld even more because there were females in the unit.”

The training was grueling. “I definitely realized I was not in the shape I needed to be in when I got here,” she said. That may have fed some of the doubts she and the other women sensed from their male peers and their drill sergeants. “With the male trainees, there were some that had our backs 100%, and some who didn’t want us to be there at all,” she recalled, noting that as the women’s performance improved, attitudes toward them did too.

Not all of the  trainees would make it through. Approximately 20% of the male soldiers and a little under half of the 34 female soldiers eventually washed out — some after concluding that the job wasn’t what they’d envisioned, others due to injuries or simply not being up to the physical demands. “Some of them were tiny, so it was very hard on their bodies,” Starnes said, who stands five feet, six inches tall herself. “They had to do double rations just to try and build them up. But they were never going to get past anything more physically demanding than what they’d already done.”

U.S. Army photo
U.S. Army Infantry soldiers-in-training assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade, graduate Infantry One Station Unit Training (OSUT) on May 18, 2017, at Inouye Parade Field at the National infantry Museum.

According to Starnes, a few women excelled and even kept up with the top guys in the class, some of whom had been among the most vociferous skeptics. “Over time, some of the females were doing more than them,” she said, “and that shut them up real quick.”

Although Starnes ultimately made it through, she was honest about her own struggles. “At first it was tough,” she said. During the rucks — strenuous marches with packs weighing up to 100 pounds, “it was hard to keep up,” she said, “but I pushed myself through and didn’t give up.” That perseverance caught the attention of her drill sergeants, who were — in the traditional manner — more than happy to oblige the women’s motivation by giving them more work. “Towards the end of basic I was getting pushed more,” Starnes recalled. “The drill sergeant’s favorite line with me at the track was ‘Take another lap, you.’” Starnes paused, and then confidently told me, “I’m no longer one of the last ones.”

Toward the end of Infantry OSUT, training takes on a ramped-up intensity, which is designed to prepare participants for the rigors of the field. The final hurdle is a weeklong field-training exercise that culminates with a long ruck march back to Honor Hill, where soldiers are officially welcomed into the infantry. “We started out with 35-pound rucks,” Starnes recalled. They didn’t end that way. “For the ruck to Honor Hill at the end, one of the females weighed hers afterwards and it was 110 pounds,” she said. Starnes went on to refute the accusation that the female soldiers had been spared the job of carrying the heavier machine guns. “My battle buddy, she carried the two-forty-bravo, and another carried the two-four-nine.”

As any infantryman worth his salt knows, training  — like combat — isn’t always fair. Sometimes you draw the short stick. It happened to Starnes on the trek back from the final field-training exercise. “We got smoked pretty bad,” she said. “My partner was this really big guy. He fireman-carried me down the hill, and I had to carry him back up the hill. At the top, I had to start lunging while carrying him, which he didn’t have to do.”

Such physical effort had a profound effect on Starnes. Her step-dad noticed the difference right away. “They put 22 pounds on the girl in 14 weeks!” he said. “She went in at 138, she weighs 160 now.” Starnes’ parents noticed other changes as well, which were apparent even before graduation. “Every time I got a letter, it was like she ain’t our little girl anymore, she’s a woman, and a strong woman at that,” Casey recalled.

U.S. Army photo
U.S. Army Infantry soldiers-in-training assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade, conduct their ‘Cross Rifles’ ceremony May 5, 2017, after completing their ruck march back to Sand Hill as part of their culminating training exercise on Honor Hill.

Not all of the doubts about gender integration at infantry OSUT revolve around physical performance. Many in the military are concerned about the fraternization that has permeated other gender-integrated basic trainings, and what its effect could be on a frontline infantry unit. The Army took very specific precautions to prevent that from happening to the inaugural integrated infantry class, including hi-tech cameras that track all of the trainees movements in their barracks area.

So did any hook-ups happen in the laundry room — the popular location of rumored fraternization in the Army — during A Company 1/19’s stay on Sand Hill? Starnes said no. “Everyone was always talking about how the females were gonna be hooking up in the laundry room in the beginning, but that was never an issue,” she said. “It was just a bunch of soldiers getting their laundry done.”

“Before I came here, I was 100% against [integration], but after I saw these girls perform I actually thought some of them are better than male soldiers I have had in the past.”

Starnes and 17 other women earned the prestigious blue cord, performing every task to the standard that was asked of them. Graduation was a humble affair for the newly minted infantrymen, male and female alike, but the significance of the moment was not lost on everyone. Sounding almost embarrassed, Starnes recalled arriving at the hotel where her parents were staying. “The ladies behind the counter were jumping up and down excited to meet me,” she said, “like I was a celebrity.”

For her parents, the idea that their daughter was now among the few who would be charged with killing the enemy in close combat sunk in right around the time the pyrotechnics started going off during the graduation ceremony. “Knowing that your kid could be going through that, through a gun battle…” her step-dad said, losing himself in the thought as he spoke. Starnes’ mom, Shannon, was a bit more direct about how the demonstration affected her: “I lost it.”

U.S. Army photo
A U.S. Army Infantry soldier-in-training assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade, negotiates the Sand Hill Obstacle Course February 13, 2017, on Sand Hill.

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For some other perspectives on the first integrated infantry class, I reached out to one of Starnes’ male peers, who went through training alongside her, as well as one of her instructors. Both asked to remain anonymous in order to speak openly. The infantryman said that in the beginning, he “was kind of excited to make history.” He admitted, however, that he and the other male trainees initially feared that the introduction of women might mean they’d be cheated out of the full infantry-school experience — that the entire course would be watered down to allow their female counterparts to pass. But that turned out not to be the case, he said. “The whole cycle was very black and white, very strict — no freedoms, no privileges,” he said, adding that when he compared notes with other graduates of the course, “It ended up being pretty close to the same, if not actually more difficult.”

As for conduct between the men and women, the instructor who oversaw training for A company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, had a positive report. “Soldiers seemed to treat each other the same as any other unit that is all-male,” he said, adding that the drill sergeants had been professional as well. “The treatment was the exact same. If they (female trainees) messed up, they got reamed just as bad as anyone else.”

Nonetheless, he did note some differences in performance. “The last soldier to complete each task I observed was always a female soldier,” he said, while noting that a few women had exceeded expectations and been “above the whole platoon in many aspects.” For instance, on the night-infiltration low crawl, which includes live rounds being shot over the trainees heads, “the first few across were female.”

The male trainee agreed with that assessment. While noting that “multiple females would drop out of every ruck,” he reported that “at least one female from each platoon had to carry a machine gun” and that “they carried their own weight pretty good.”

U.S. Army photo
U.S. Army Infantry soldiers-in-training assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade, conduct machine gun familiarization training March 31, 2017, at Patton range.

Much of the controversy surrounding the integration of women has involved the maintenance  of standards. In a statement, Command Sgt. Maj. Tyrus Taylor affirmed that “the standards remained the same from previous classes” and that “male and female trainees all had to pass the same significant requirements to graduate.”

Asked if he agreed, the male infantryman wasn’t so sure. “A lot of them were pushed through because they were females,” he said, explaining that he thinks the female soldiers were given more chances to stay in the course than their male counterparts were afforded. The instructor took issue with that assertion though. “Everyone did the same thing, and that’s why not all 34 that started, graduated,” he said. “If anything, the standards were upheld even more because there were females in the unit.”

There was one notable exception though: The standard Army Physical Fitness Test. “They [the Army] still grade them on the female scale,” the instructor admitted, “however, they are also part of a pilot program to do away with separate gender grading. This will in turn lower the standards for males, yet make the playing field pretty even when it comes to physical fitness test.”

“I don’t think they realize the magnitude of what they’ve done.”

As it stands now, female infantryman have to complete 23 fewer push-ups than their male counterparts, and they have more than three additional minutes to complete their two-mile run. “Even some of the females were pissed about the PT test,” the male infantryman said, “because they feel like they didn’t earn it the same as everyone else.” Notably, two women actually exceeded the male standard for their record APFT. It seems clear that if the Army wants integration to succeed, this is one area that needs to be addressed.

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Critics will undoubtedly continue to question the logic behind integrating male and female soldiers into the infantry. But for the instructor, who has spent nearly two decades in the infantry, the inaugural experiment was a success. “Before I came here, I was 100% against [integration],” he said, “but after I saw these girls perform I actually thought some of them are better than male soldiers I have had in the past.”

U.S. Army photo
U.S. Army Infantry soldiers-in-training assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade, conduct their ‘Turning Blue Ceremony’ where they put on their distinctive blue cords identifying them as infantrymen May 18, 2017, at Sand Hill’s Pomeroy Field.

As for Starnes, she is currently waiting to ship out to her first assignment. Whatever it is, she is determined to prove her critics wrong. “I definitely want to make a career out of the military,” she says. “As of right now, my goal is to make it through these first three years. If it goes well, I will reenlist as infantry.”

Starnes and her sisters-in-arms, who have recently been taking in the online firestorm that greeted news of their graduation, know that the odds are still stacked against them and that infantry OSUT is still just the first step. But they are now among the underdogs Pyle once wrote about, the underdogs without whom wars cannot be won. And that in itself is a considerable victory. As Starnes’ proud step-father put it, “I don’t think they realize the magnitude of what they’ve done.”