‘If the military wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one’: The struggles of women in the military

A look into the day-to-day challenges that women face in the military.


Angela Christen after her graduation from basic training. Courtesy of Christen.

Savannah Peifer, Editor-in-Chief

“I just fell in love with the idea of it.” 

When Jamie Shelton was 16, she interviewed an Army recruiter for a class assignment. After that conversation she knew she was destined to serve. 

Being one of the first co-ed classes to go through basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.,in 1995, she experienced what she now recognizes as gender discrimination. 

The Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Military Members, conducted by the United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, found 16.1% of active-duty women experienced gender discrimination, 28.6% experienced sexual harrassment, and 8.4% experienced unwanted sexual contact.  

When Shelton attended basic training, she said there was one room to house all of the women attending. She said, as a group, the women expected to be treated the same as their male counterparts. But, as their time progressed they noticed a lack of consistency.

Their male superiors made sexual remarks and pushed them past their limits. She said a lack of understanding of female anatomy and training led to multiple hip injuries among the women. Despite this, she continued through her training.

“You’re going to military up, you’re going to soldier up and you’re going to be part of the thing,” she said. 

Women were 2.5 times more likely to experience injuries during their training, according to Army Wellness Centers. 

About halfway through basic training, a female drill sergeant was brought onto the staff in an attempt to offset the difference between the men and women. 

While Shelton was on “Kitchen Police” duty, a shift where she was removed from exercise and put into the chow hall to serve dishes and clean them, her drill sergeants were not on campus. Two male replacements were brought in for the day. 

After they went through the typical physical training routine, the male recruits were dismissed while the females were not. 

“The two male instructors were there, they had them doing very inappropriate exercises for about an hour. There wasn’t much left to the imagination. Then they were dismissed. Well, that affected quite a few of the girls and so somehow they had broke away at some point during the day to report it,” she said. 

She said all of the recruits were interrogated the next day as part of an investigation. She is not certain of the outcome of the investigation or punishments imposed on the men.

Shelton excelled in every task during her training. She said while she was being recruited, they told her basic was a “mind-game,” and this is what allowed her to succeed. 

“I was always trying to show them that they were not going to break me and they never did break me,” she said. 

She was repeatedly punished by her superiors when she exceeded her peers in a task. They often gave her extra exercise and once opened a package of cookies her aunt sent her, allowing every one of her peers to share while she could not have any. 

She said there was a male recruit that performed similarly to her, and he was never subject to punishment but highlighted as a pinnacle of training. 

When she was 19, she served as a Black Hawk mechanic. Originally, she was receiving accolades and being put in high positions within her crew. As time progressed, she started being sexualized by her counterparts and filed a formal complaint. 

After her complaint, she was moved from her position and forced to clean almost everyday. At the time, she felt like this was detrimental for her future.

“I felt bad. Because what have I done? I’ve ruined my career. I’ve ruined opportunities. I was thrown in the back of the line and there was nothing that I could ever do to get back to where I was,” she said. 

When Shelton became pregnant, she experienced an even worse shift in her treatment. Her pregnancy even affected her husband, as he was punished. 

“He received a counseling statement and an Article 15 for destruction of government property. We were already barely surviving and he lost a whole rank over it,” she said. 

An Article 15 is a non-judicial punishment where punishments can include demotion, restrictions, a fine taken out of salary, or oral reprimanding. 

She said her superiors urged her to get an abortion or place her child up for adoption. When she declined, her superiors wanted her to sign parental rights to another family member. 

Throughout the pregnancy, her command refused to accommodate her physical limitations, despite her providing a doctor’s note. Being a mechanic, she was surrounded by chemicals. 

“That unit was notorious for working the women so hard and around chemicals that they shouldn’t have been around, that they would lose their babies,” she said. “If the military wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one.”

Shelton believes the military has many more improvements to make to support women, but the progress they have made is astounding. 

“I’ve always been for women and children. So the fact that I was able to kind of blaze that trail for other people. I feel like that was an honor,” she said. “I was now a symbol of anybody who was going to be coming in after me.”

Shelton urges women to continue serving in the military, despite current inequities. 

“Women may never be paid as much as men. Women may never be treated equally as men and I’m well aware of that. But we can continue fighting for the other people who are going to come after us,” she said. 

Angela Christen, an 8-year Army medic, saw the service as a way to escape an abusive household and provide for herself. 

During her time in basic training, a female drill sergeant put immense pressure on women to perform to a higher standard. Christen was originally resentful, but grew to realize this prepared her for future endeavors. 

Christen received a recommendation from a sergeant major for promotion and submitted it to her superiors. She claims her superior openly told her he was not submitting her for promotion. 

“There were other males that were in line that were also in the running for promotion, and one of the men told me that he would not be submitting my packet for promotion, very specifically because when I was a female and I hadn’t been in the military long enough in his eyes to deserve the promotion,” she said. 

Christen said this was very difficult for her to navigate, as she had never experienced a situation like this. 

“I didn’t know who I could trust and who I could go to talk about the situation to get it resolved,” she said. 

After filing a formal complaint with the U.S. Army Inspector General, she was promoted. 

In 2004, Christen became pregnant with her son. From there, her command was extremely hard on her. Consistently commenting on how her uniforms fit, refusing to acknowledge her physical limitations, and after she gave birth pushing her to lose weight. 

“I didn’t feel like I fit, it was very demeaning,” she said. 

After the birth of her son she was afraid to pump breast milk while at work, so she would often wait until leaving or utilize her lunch break.

In 2007,she gave birth to her daughter and her command had a completely different reaction. They offered her private space with room to pump and were understanding of her limitations. 

“​​I felt like the times in the military were kind of changing and that they were being more respectful in the aspect of they knew this was something I had to do for my child’s nutrition and they created this space and allowed me to do it,” she said. 

Christen’s husband also served at the same time. His special operations job meant their superiors always prioritized his time over hers. Each time Christen had to leave to take care of her child, the soldiers under her command grew resentful of hr.

Although in different units, they were placed on deployment at the same time. Her superiors gave her the option to sign her kids over to another family member. She chose against them, and transitioned out of the military. 

“They were very angry when I was not deploying with them because I was a mom,” she said. 

She said her childhood influenced her decision significantly and it is no one else’s responsibility to raise her children.

“According to the military, if I wasn’t willing to send my kids to be cared for by someone else, so my husband and I could both be deployed at the same time then I didn’t need to be there,” she said. 

Christen said resources for women veterans are extremely low. For example, she now works for the only organization that provides transitional housing for women veterans in the Eastern United States. She said there are 10 organizations that offer this same housing for their male counterparts. 

Karlyn Davis served three years in the Army as a way to provide for her daughter. 

During her time in basic training, one of the most notable differences between the men and women recruits was the high number of hip injuries among the women. For most of her colleagues, these injuries led to removal from the service. 

Davis said she never experiences outright discrimination, but a lot of her male counterparts made sexual innuendos that often made her uncomfortable. 

Throughout her service, Davis’ biggest challenge was proving she was able to complete the physical tasks and exercises similarly to the men. In her experience, the age of her chain of command greatly affected how they treated the women. 

“I feel like it was more so the older chain of command that did not like women being in the military in general,” she said.

Davis was a single mother and her superiors were often not understanding of this. They would often make her stay late, despite knowing she did not have a babysitter during those hours. 

“There was another incident where someone in the motor pool threw a wrench, almost hit somebody, and then broke a piece of equipment,” Davis said. “They refused to let me leave to go get my daughter from daycare and the daycare was about to call the police on me.”

Davis’ service ended due to an Army wide downsize where thousands of soldiers were removed, making it extremely difficult to provide for her child.

“I was not a priority to them,” she said. 

Davis was denied her Department of Veteran Affairs benefits, these can include disability pay, home owners loans, and life insurance. She then had to refinance her home, placing more strain on her financial needs. 

Davis now is a mother of five and runs a daycare. 

“I feel like I’m way more successful now than I was. I feel like I can actually provide a better life than what I could in the military,” she said. 

Savannah Peifer is the Editor-in-Chief for the University Press. For more information regarding this or other stories DM her @ginger.savvy or email her at [email protected].