“You girls are worthless… a waste of my time.”
In 1978, I was a visionary 18-year-old girl from Johnstown, Ohio – a town encompassing a grand total of 2.9 square miles and whose idea of big news involved an increased corn yield for one farm family or the next. With nothing to do but go to school and clean the house, I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life, and please believe, I knew. I wanted to be a world-renowned artist, to draw for Disney, to have an excuse to express my “artistic” flare in everything I do and wear. In high school I drew all the time, I painted murals on school walls; I even doodled as I daydreamed. When I got my acceptance letter from the Columbus School of Art & Design I knew that I’d finally be able to do something I loved. And then my first dose of reality set in.
My parents told me just one month before I was set to graduate from high school that they wouldn’t be sending me to art school. My world immediately stopped spinning; gravity had lost its force and I was suddenly floating in an abyss of uncertainty. And all too quickly I started free falling back to earth, suddenly terrified about the prospect of my life. My options according to my mother: marry a man or get a job. So, I decided on the latter. Just a month after graduation, I joined the United States Army with the rest of the guys I thought had no future. And let me tell you, doing so changed my life forever.
Over the course of my 20-year career as a woman in the United States Army, I have many memories, both good and bad. But the experience that continues to stain my mind is what I endured in basic training. Basic training was a very structured and rigid environment with daily threats, intimidation, and high expectations. If political correctness existed then, I surely wasn’t aware of it. Drill instructors were openly sexist against their female platoons to a degree that most would find unbelievable today. These weeks of training involved not only torturous physical exercise, but a constant condemnation of each female private. We were told by our male drill instructors that we were worthless and a waste of their time. And what’s worse, they told us that the entire platoon would pay if we “cried for our mommies and daddies.” So I didn’t cry.
For many of us, it was our first time away from home, so you can probably imagine the fear and loneliness we felt at the end of each day – days that started when most sane people were still sleeping, days filled with yelling, threats, hustling from one place to the next, rapid eating (with little breathing or tasting), and listening to drill instructors as they berate you, your family, and even your pets. After a day like that you can probably image how the only source of relief from all of that stress would be a good solid cry… but crying was considered a “cardinal sin.” Just one tear rolling down your cheek would mark you as weak. So, I learned not to cry. Nothing broke my exterior – not the birth of my children, the pain of a broken ankle, the disappointment when I didn’t get selected for promotion, or the death of fellow soldiers. By the time I was promoted to Sergeant First Class, I had completely forgotten that whimsical girl from Johnstown.
Needless to say, the Army completely altered me, my personality, and my ability to feel emotions. But on the day of my retirement it was as if a dam broke. After 20 years I was finally able to release a lifetime of pent up joy, pain, hurt, happiness, and disappointment that I’d endured for so long. And since my retirement I’ve realized that that young starry-eyed girl is still alive and well in the mind and bodyof a woman who’s lived it all. In spite of my experiences in basic training, I look back on my time in the military with a sense of fondness, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I will now cry at the drop of a dime. Until next time, Hooah!!
Frederica Zabala, US Army retired Sergeant First Class, mother of two and grandma!