This article was published in Smart Soldier 64, May 21.
The ADF began lifting the restrictions on employment categories in 2013 with all ADF employment categories open to current serving ADF women since 2014. Direct entry to all combat roles has been open to women entering the ADF since January 2016. With five years of experience, now is a good time to discuss what it’s like to be a female combat soldier and how to prepare for such a role.
An RFI was sent out to Army and three members responded; two officers and a soldier from two infantry battalions and an armoured regiment. This is the second of the three articles, with the final to be published in the following Smart Soldier publication.
This article provides one perspective from ‘boots on the ground’, that may be of interest for all soldiers, regardless of Corps. The opinions and experiences expressed within the article are those of the author.
What are the best parts of being a female combat soldier?
The same parts as being a male combat solder. It comes down to the individual and what you enjoy as a person. For me it’s combat shooting and the time spent on the range working on Infantry specific skills, and learning and developing urban TTPs. However, from a female commander’s perspective the best part is the relationships you develop with your command team and your soldiers. Having a good relationship with my CPLs and PL SGT makes work every day really enjoyable. They push me to be a better solider and are invested in the success of our platoon. I really enjoy getting to know my soldiers and who they are as people, and I feel as though being a female makes them a little more comfortable in terms of discussing sensitive topics.
What are the worst parts of being a female combat soldier?
My only gripe is that there are no female bathrooms in the Company lines as I still use the disabled bathroom to shower. In the wider scheme of things, if that’s the worst part, I believe that the Army is doing a solid job at incorporating females into combat roles. The reality is that, as a female, you will always stand out. Being the only female combat soldier (officer) at the unit, when you make a mistake it will be obvious and someone will be taking note; it’s important that you have the courage and strength to be able to address and own those mistakes.
What are the biggest challenges for a female combat soldier? How have you overcome these?
The biggest challenge as a female combat soldier has been carrying weight in the field environment. It’s incredibly physically demanding, especially if you have a small build; on top of leading a platoon and making the right choices. My job has become easier the fitter and stronger I have become. I did not march in as the person that I am today, and it has taken dedication to becoming more physically competent that has helped me overcome these challenges.
What has been the most rewarding experience/s for you as a female combat soldier?
The most rewarding experience was going overseas with my platoon. Again, it was the relationship I developed with my soldiers, CPLs and PL SGT. Jungle training is demanding, and I doubt there would be many people that would put their hand up willingly to do it all again, but it was the combined experience we all had. By the completion of the trip we were incredibly close, and made the exercises at the end of the year easier and enjoyable.
What do female soldiers have to do in order to prepare to be a combat soldier?
The most important component of being a combat soldier is physical capability. The best training to prepare, especially in infantry, is training with the burden of weight. Not necessarily starting off with a full pack, but progressive training, from interval training with TBAS, working your way to a 45kg pack and doing regular pack marches. In combination with weight training is dedication to recovery. For example, I will do a 1600m run once a week with patrol order (again, progress training to culminate at that ‘patrol’ weight), and follow that run with a 1km slow recovery swim in the pool immediately following the run and 20 minutes of yoga either during my lunch break or after work. I have never had an injury, and I am certain that it’s because early on in my career I’ve had people around me who were dedicated to recovery. I cannot stress enough the importance of being able to carry weight for long periods of time, especially on a three-week exercise. This kind of lead up training, and progression into weight training, will set anyone up for success in the corps (combined with personality and dedication).
How big a part does physical strength play in day-to-day activities of your job? What type of training is required to get to this level? Can you recommend a program?
Anyone in the Army, regardless of corps, should be dedicated to maintaining their physical excellence and mobility. Even a day on the range doing combat shooting requires decent upper body and core strength to prevent lower back injuries and maintaining safety on the range. Day-to-day activities, such as navigation training, urban training with airsoft at the Soldier Tactical Training Facility (STTF) and other basic soldiers skills conducted in the battalion require physical strength to meet the standard. What is required is dedication to maintaining physical fitness and concentrating on building strength and endurance.
The biggest effort for myself, being 55kg and built like a grasshopper, is putting on weight and maintaining muscle mass throughout the year to ensure that when I go out field I can physically perform. Cardio has never been an issue for myself and I am a natural runner; however, it is running with weight (or even just patrolling) that I have had to work on. The type of training that I have been participating in during normal PT timings at work for the most part of the year has been TADP, which is well rounded with weights and cardio (long slow distance or maximum aerobic function (MAF) sprints), combined with my own training. In my own time I do follow a program, which is cardio twice a week and weighted once a week (Monday and Friday – Monday and Friday I will try to jog to work 6km there and home again – Wednesday early morning is my webbing run). In the afternoons straight after work on Tuesday and Thursday is weight training in the gym.
My unit has their own facility which is on par with the area gym, plus CFLs who are there to help critique technique and give hand modifying and updating your own personal programs. I usually do one leg day (squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, leg curls, calf raises, core Tabata 15 min) and one upper body day (bench, shoulder press, push-ups, heaves, weighted heaves, pull downs, core Tabata 15 min). After every session, regardless of how hard I push myself, I will always do 20 minutes of yoga focusing on those muscle groups. This program does tend to change when I am away on course, and obviously there are periods of time when I cannot do this every week due to field exercises etc. However, I have found in the past couple of years, following something like this has always prepared me and I have yet to sustain a serious injury.
What tips do you have for being a female combat soldier out in the field? Please include all relevant topics, including physical, emotional, biological, personal hygiene, weight bearing (and any effects), equipment (weight limitations, weight configuration, types and modifications, etc).
I would recommend being on some form of contraceptive, so that you can control when and where you have your period. It is not a feasible expectation to go on a field exercise and have the time, or the access to a hygienic environment to be able to look after yourself correctly. Personally I am on the pill, and after nearly 6 years in the army taking my pill as a part of my morning routine has become habit, just as any man shaves. As a commander, if I did have a female soldier, I would not give her any exemptions or extra time to be able to manage having a period out field and would fully expect her to be able to perform to the same standard as any other one of my soldiers.
However, with that said, personal hygiene is extremely important, especially on longer exercises. I normally wear a liner and will change underwear every 3-4 days, which is entirely dependent on what we are doing and what missions we have completed. For example, after a PL deliberate attack I will swap out underwear during night routine. Night routine is important because it gives you a little discretion, I will always use baby wipes as well before I go to sleep to make sure everything is clean, just as many of the guys do.
Emotionally, be open and honest when you’re struggling. Most infantry soldiers have a high degree of emotional intelligence and form an amazing support network. There have been multiple times in a PL harbour my PL SGT has come over, sat next to me and ask, 'Ok boss, tell me what’s wrong'. If you bottle things up, especially when busy, it will culminate and it’s better to air your frustrations to someone you can trust. Mental resilience is in our soldier contract, and that is especially prevalent in the field, keeping a positive attitude and having a good sense of humour will give you emotional stability, I can guarantee that.
In terms of weight-bearing, I prepare for that as a part of my morning routine also. Before we go on any mission where we are required to take packs I will always strap my lower back, and any hot spots. For me, that is the side of my hips, and upper thighs. I have tried wearing skins out field, but they get far too hot, especially on an assault. So I started wearing longer Under Armour underwear, which extend to mid-thigh as well as strapping those areas. This means there is double protection on my friction points and I don’t have to re-strap every-day. I will do two types of strapping tape so it doesn’t rip my skin, being Fixomull for the bottom layer and Leukoplast for the top layer. I will always take two rolls of each out field. Weight bearing also puts a lot of pressure on your feet, so invest in good socks. The issued socks will give you blisters, and probably won’t last long. I use Fox River socks or another brand called Darn Tough (T4021).
Giving tips on equipment is difficult, because everyone will have a different preference based on their body type. There is no possibility to employ 'weight limitations' in the field, mostly because everyone is required to carry the same things. It also comes down to experience. For three days sustainment, I know how much food I eat, so I can easily cut down my ration packs. However, I do drink a lot of water, so I normally carry an extra litre than what is a part of our DP1. Biggest advice I could give is to train prior to going out field and build yourself up to be able to handle the weight.
In terms of modifications I’ve made, it is all to do with the pack. Seek out advice from a CPL or SNCOs about setting it up correctly and go on a couple of small weighted walks to figure out where the friction points are and modify accordingly. For example, a lot of females have a long torso, so just because you have a small stature, it does not mean your pack frame will be set to the smallest setting (Gen 2 pack frame). Mine sits perfectly on the second setting (M). Weight configuration is no different to any male, heavier weights (water bottles) should go towards the bottom of the pack. Easy access items like your sleeping kit go on the top. Once you establish your own routine you will find what works for you.
Being female in what is often otherwise a majority male team poses common challenges. What strategies have men and women found to build the respect and see the value in the gender neutral team?
Building respect is about how you react in challenging environments. Understanding and approaching different welfare concerns, and looking after your soldiers is a huge part of building respect from a command perspective. In the field environment, for example, being that positive person even when you’re being rained on, or its freezing cold enhances the respect your soldiers have for you. I also spend time with my CPLs after hours or during quiet periods of work trying to improve my own soldier skills; showing that you are serious about your trade and dedicated to making yourself a better part of the team establishes common ground and demonstrates that you are. Men and women also have very different approaches to planning. For example, working on TEWTs with my PL SGT during BDE or BN exercises emphasises the value in gender neutral teams. I’m also super light to lift in team challenges through the obstacle course, so that definitely value-adds.
How can you improve your performance as a combat soldier?
Each individual has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important not to focus solely on the gender of the soldier, but on the individual as a person. Especially for junior leaders in combat roles (especially infantry), you need to know your people to understand what each person needs to work on, and collectively what the Platoon or Section needs to work on. For me, it’s urban operations. I need more time in the STTF following a section through and understanding where a PL COMD fits in and how to coordinate those missions (as any male PL COMD might). Being a combat soldier is about improving individual skill. There is no difference in gender when it comes to performance, just things like fitness that can enhance those skills.
What strengths does a female bring to the role of a combat soldier? Please explain why.
Compassion and empathy. Females can be a lot more approachable, and normally in a typical infantry green role, that is not necessarily something that is valued as a strength. However, I am of the opinion that the role of the infantry is changing as conflict changes, and there has been a definite shift towards DACC and HADR operations where you will have regular contact with civilians, namely women and children. Being able to meaningfully engage with women, children and marginalised groups on these operations may eliminate future or potential threats.
Do you recommend any reading, or other material, to improve your PME?
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Pretty much outlines that you are responsible for your own success and excuses are not acceptable.
Diversity comes with respecting differences but it also offers a combat multiplier by offering more ways to consider work tactical problem solving. Do you have any examples where a fresh perspective made a difference?
Like I mentioned above, a lot of the TEWTs we’ve done in at company level have been a part of a brigade or battalion exercise; meaning we are always working as a group contributing to a tactical solution. Everyone contributing in those groups has different experiences, different understandings of how the enemy would fight and therefore any perspective is different. I think for me personally, having such an interest in the red picture, coming up with the ‘what if’s’ and posing those questions to the group definitely creates more of a challenge and therefore creates a stronger blue result.
 A high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, featuring exercises that last four minutes.