Cadet Karyn Zaagie addresses an all-male Brazilian classroom.
As we pulled up to the gate, the sign read: Foça Aérea Brasileira. “Do they have women here?” I wondered. Somehow, this question had not crossed my mind, in my week-long preparation at Ft. Knox, nor within the months prior to my trip as I learned about the Brazilian military. I was unsure whether it allowed female cadets. I only assumed that it did. I have only ever known a country where women are not only allowed to enter into military life, but excel in the armed forces.
A few weeks before departing for my CULP Brazil trip, I noticed the cover of the latest ArmyTimes: “Army Brass Mulls Sending Women to Ranger School.” This instantly drew me in. “Excellent,” I thought to myself. As a National Guard SMP (Simultaneous Membership Program) ROTC Nursing cadet, I enjoy Army training and all that it entails, but I still would not consider myself as the Ranger tab-seeking type.
However, I know that there are females out there who are. Not all women are suitable to be infantry soldiers or Rangers, but not all male soldiers are suited either. If a woman can meet the rigorous standards and training that these branches require, then what really should restrict her from doing so? Clearly, U.S. Army officials are asking these same questions. They have initiated a very important conversation to the Army and the entire world, and many people (like me) are eagerly awaiting answers.
With this “Army Times” article fresh in my mind, I embarked on my three-week journey to Brazil as a member of a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Cultural and Language Proficiency Trip (CULP). Our mission was a military-to-military trip to Brazil, where we would work and train with the Brazilian Army and Air Force cadets.
In the United States, the first female cadets graduated from West Point and the Air Force Academy in the early 1980s. Although Brazil was the first country in South America to allow women into their armed forces (this also occurred in the 1980s), it was not until much later that they were permitted into the Air Force Academy. Women are currently still not accepted into the Brazilian Army Academy, Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras (AMAN).
In January 2003, the Brazilian Air Force Academy opened its aviation application to female cadets. As a member of a military-to-military CULP team, I was fortunate to gain insight into the life of Brazilian Army and Air Force cadets, and particularly that of the female cadets. We arrived to the Air Force Academy on June 4th. As our bus pulled up to the main building, my question was quickly answered. Cadet Mayara waited patiently to greet us with her fellow cadets, Cadet Diego, and Cadet Aaron. Over the next four days, we toured the academy, learned of their rigorous selection process, and saw firsthand the life of a Brazilian Air Force cadet. We were all impressed by the discipline, structure, and high standards enforced by the academy.
After spending time with the cadets, we learned that Mayara was only one of two female cadets in her fourth year of aviation training. The Air Force Academy has three branches of service that cadets can enter into: aviation, logistics, and infantry. Females are permitted into the aviation and logistics branches, but not the infantry (similar to the U.S.).
The next day we met another female aviation cadet in her third year, Cadet Gabriella. The third year cadets had more females than any other year, a statistic that Gabriella was proud to share. We discussed the similar feelings we have as females in the military. Many agreed that we women are as capable as our male counterparts, and we feel like we must continuously prove ourselves as capable. Gabriella described the camaraderie between female cadets, and how they closely work together and support each other through training.
I was so impressed with the cadets we met at the academy. They were smart, focused, disciplined, and driven to achieve their goal to become pilots in the Brazilian Air Force. After four days, we departed the Air Force Academy, and prepared ourselves for the long journey to AMAN.
After an enlightening trip to the Air Force Academy, we were excited to see the Brazilian Army Academy. Again, questions arose about whether females were permitted, but this time there was a different answer. The bus stopped outside of the academy gates. “Females you will be staying here?” our interpreter said. We were all slightly surprised, but departed the bus obligingly. That evening we meet Lt. Camilla, an English teacher at the academy. I was initially confused at the status of women in the Brazilian Army. How are women allowed in the Army, but not at the academy?
Lt. Camilla was our primary guide. She was smart, confident, well-spoken, and to the point. After a short period of time we learned she has an eight-year contract at the academy, and after that period, she will no longer be permitted to serve in the military. Currently, women only serve in the army under these types of contracts, but soon that will change.
On our first day, we had the privilege of meeting with the general of AMAN. He spoke highly of the United States Army and of the relationship shared between the two countries. He welcomed us and informed us of the status of the academy, and particularly the status of women at the academy. Soon AMAN will open its doors to female cadets. He appeared excited to take this significant step in Brazilian history. As we spoke to more cadets and officials though, we learned of some of the hesitations and fears toward this unknown change. The commanders must make decisions regarding housing, physical fitness standards, and potential social conflicts, among other potential problems.
The other female cadets and I experienced some of this hesitation first-hand. One of the officers assisting us on our visit asked if anyone was interested in completing the 2.5 mile run of the PT test with the AMAN cadets. As an avid runner, I quickly accepted this challenge, along with another U.S. female cadet, Karyn Zaagie.
We waited patiently for the cadre to tell us more details of the run, and where to start. Suddenly, we saw the group of cadets begin their run on the road across the field. I quickly asked if we could go, and slowly they agreed. We took off running across the field, jumped a fence, and started the run almost 400m behind the pack. We both quickly closed the distance, and gradually we began to pass a few male cadets, one by one. Although I could not understand what they said, some male cadets appeared to give encouragement as I passed.
After the run, we learned that the AMAN officers (including the female officers) were worried that females joining the run would somehow compromise the PT test. At first, I was shocked. I am so used to running with male cadets that I could not even imagine that it would be a problem.
Looking back, however, I can see that they had never had males race with females, and since it was such a new experience, perhaps they thought that the men would hang back and try to run with the slower females. This was not the case, though. As I passed each cadet, I could sense they were pushing themselves as hard as possible so not to get beat by the American female. It was a unique experience to take part in this test. I hope it helped the Brazilian officials realize that female cadets can compete with males.
It is interesting to compare the status of females in the United States Army with that of the Brazilian military. Both countries are in the process of considering females for roles that have never been filled by a female before in their countries. I am excited to know that women like Lt. Camilla will be able to serve Brazil in a higher role, in the same way that I am excited that women will be potentially allowed in combat branches.
Although they are on opposite sides of the world, both Brazilian and The United States Armies face similar challenges. Our CULP trip to Brazil was a truly unique experience. Although we differ in our uniforms, language, marching, and insignia, as cadets we share common goals to serve and improve our country and to improve ourselves.