West Point, New York—For college senior Liz Cho, life resembles that of any 22-year-old girl: she goes to class, she hangs out with her boyfriend and she looks forward to graduation.
But when Cho attends lectures, she wears a starched uniform, and she can’t even share a seat on a sofa with her boyfriend despite the fact that they are getting married in May. When she receives her diploma next semester, Cho knows it won’t be long before she is deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Cho is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and so is her fiancé.
“We can’t hold hands or show PDA,” said Cho of West Point’s policy regarding romance, adding that it wasn’t too difficult to adhere to the rules and she is looking forward to getting deployed.
“I’ve never left the US besides Mexico or Canada,” Cho said during a break from a war simulation exercise held in the computer lab of Cullum Hall on Tuesday afternoon. Her silk black hair was tied back in a tight bun, a standard uniform regulation for females in the Army
According to Bryan Hilftery, US Army Director of Communications, enlisted women are a tremendous asset to the Corps, particularly in the Middle East where religion dictates that Afghani and Iraqi women should be searched by females and not males.
“We need to change the wording of Army policy that says women can’t be co-located with combat troops, because we can’t enforce it,” Hilferty said. “Women are all over the Army.”
Cho, who hopes to serve in Iraq, will join approximately 180 women in earning a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point this year in a class of about 1200 Cadets. The Academy, which only admitted men until 1976, is now 15% female.
“It’s kind of intimidating at first,” said Cho of her initial experience of being in a small minority of girls at a storied institute for men. “You need to speak up for yourself.”
Finding a comfort level was especially difficult for Cho, a native of California who attended an all girls school for five years before matriculating to West Point’s East Coast campus. An A student at the top of her class, Cho was not even considering the Academy until she came on a last minute tour with her older brother who was desperate to attend. As luck would have it, West Point waitlisted him, so he settled for the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. instead. Cho, in turn, knew as soon as she set foot on the Military Academy’s manicured campus, where sprawling acres of New England foliage are nestled along the Hudson River 40 Miles north of New York City, that this is where she belonged even it meant being surrounded by guys. After surviving basic training before the start of her freshman year, Cho felt like an equal at last.
“You go through so many hardships with your peers, and you start to blend in naturally,” Cho recalled. “The whole gender barrier is gone.”
The Academy does its part to ensure that women do not draw too much attention to themselves. Aside from the policy on how hair is worn, only small studded earrings are permitted: gold, silver, diamond or pearl. Girls may wear one ring per hand but are prohibited from wearing bracelets of any kind save an army watch.
“We can wear skirts, but I choose not to,” said Cho as she removed two illegal hair bands from her wrists. The ring she opts to adorn herself with is a dazzling band of diamonds: her engagement ring which was given to her last April.
“People assume that women only come here to get there MRS degree—to get married to an officer,” explained Cho, while swiveling in her chair and staring at her blinking computer screen. “But it’s not true. We all have a purpose.”
Cho’s purpose is to become a basic Army officer, which is why she plans on attending a leadership course this summer. Finding a fiancé in the process has just been a bonus.
She looked at her ring and smiled. “Sometimes it is difficult to break myself off.”