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Women in Blue and Gray

More Than Two Decades of Women in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets

by Lt. Col. John Coulter '76

Before women began wearing the blue of Annapolis or the Air Force Academy and long before Shannon Faulkner's short foray into the Citadel, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets enrolled its first women.

Twenty-three years ago the Virginia Tech administration, along with the corps' commandant and the Army and Air Force ROTC programs, decided to be the first cadet corps to provide leadership training to women in a college military environment. The corps, one of six full-time cadet corps outside the federal military academies, was in its 101st year as an all-male organization.

The original 25 women (18 freshmen and seven upperclassmen) were housed in Monteith Hall and organized into L Squadron. Their duties were the same as their male counterparts, although their uniforms included skirts.

Like other military institutions that later opened their doors to women, the allmale corps did not completely accept the original 25 women. All the same, the L Squadron grew in numbers and success. The squadron was awarded the Kohler Cup as the outstanding marching unit for three consecutive years and, in 1978, received the Beverly S. Parish Award as the top squadron.

The Highty Tighties regimental band enrolled women in 1975. In 1979, taking a cue from the military academies, Virginia Tech's corp integrated women into the all-male companies. This dramatic move prompted the integration of women into Brodie and Rasche cadet dormitories. Men and women were segregated onto separate floors.

In 1990, Commandant Maj. Gen. Stanton Musser fully integrated women into each company area. Men and women were now living side by side in the cadet residence halls. The corps is a full-time military organization, Musser reasoned, so the commanders who served as resident advisors should be responsible for maintaining military discipline and a scholastic environment. Problems over the past six years of coed experience have been few.

The U.S. armed forces saw the percentage of women increase seven fold between 1973 and the Gulf War. The Virginia Tech corps has commissioned 89 women in the Air Force, 57 in the Army, 22 in the Navy, and seven in the Marines. At least 40 women have graduated in the "cadet only" option, experiencing the corps' leadership training without taking a military commission. On the other hand, Tech is one of only four full-time cadet corps outside the military academies to enroll women.

Women have continued to experience success both inside the corps and after graduation. Denise Shuster (IS '88) in 1987 earned the corps' highest rank as regimental commander. CPT Debbie Cheslow (AOE '87) was the first Virginia Tech female to become an Air Force pilot. Lori Keck (LASC '92) became the regimental band's first female drum major.

Lt. Nichole Kuczynski '95 contributed research assistance for this story. Lt. Col. Coulter is married to Lisa Lalor Coulter, one of the first female corps members.

Corps Life Challenging for First Women

by Netta Smith

Months before she was to enter Virginia Tech as a freshman, Janet James Escobedo (IS '77) received a letter inviting her to become a member of the first coed corps of cadets. "It sounded like a challenge, so I decided to do it," she recalls.

Escobedo and her female classmates soon realized that many of the decisions affecting their life in the corps were being made on an ad hoc basis. "They decided to let us in because enrollment in the corps was down," she says. "But they really hadn't thought through all of the implications of having us there." She says the officers would vacillate between being very strict and then, feeling sorry for them, becoming overly lenient.

According to her classmate, Virginia "Spotty" Ligon Vroegop (SOC '77), rules changed from one day to another, causing confusion among the cadets. "Sometimes, we'd get in trouble for coming to a meal with our hair up," she says. "At other times, we'd get in trouble for coming with it down." The stress of not knowing what might happen provided the equivalent of a rat system, Vroegop says.

Marilyn Helmeyer Hamilton (PSCI'77), remembers that even the uniform rules including skirt length-were modified that first year. Hamilton, the first woman in the Highty Tighties, says traveling was a problem, because the band was accustomed to sleeping in one barracks room. The highlight of her corps experience was marching in Jimmy Carter's inaugural parade.

Lt. Col. Escobedo, the first female recipient of Tech's Monteith Award, the first female commander of the L Squad who started as a freshman, and Tech's star javelin thrower, says she got into "terrible trouble" as a freshman. Once, she was caught using sign language to communicate during a meal that was supposed to be eaten in silence. "I was punished by having to report to the guardhouse every half hour for an entire weekend," she says.

Escobedo today is an Air Force lieutenant colonel and, since last year, is commander of the 311 Training Squadron at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio at Monterey, Calif.

Vroegop served in the army after graduation, but resigned to enter law school. After receiving her degree from the University of South Carolina in 1988, she worked in private practice, doing civil litigation. Last summer, she became a law clerk for a federal district judge in Columbia, S.C.

Hamilton served in Air Force Intelligence for six years before leaving the service to raise her children. She lives in Omaha, Neb.

Cadets Learn Discipline in Coed Dorm

For cadet corporal Jennifer Johnson (BIOC '98), life in co-educational Brodie Hall is a logical extension of a co-ed corps of cadets and excellent preparation for the Army after graduation. "The squads become closer and work better together because we live together," says the Harveys Lake, Pa., native.

Having men and women living in the same dorm creates few problems, Johnson says, because of the strict discipline the corps imposes. "A lot of the cadets want to become officers, and they know they could lose their commissions if they infringe on the rights of others in the dorm," she says. That keeps residents from bursting, into one another's rooms without invitations.

Strict visiting hours, room inspections, quiet hours from 8-11 a.m., 1-4 p.m., and 7 p.m. until dawn are routine in Brodie and at Rasche, the corps' other residence. According to Johnson, the mandatory study time each weeknight teaches important study skills.

Benjamin Loving (GE, '98) from Spencer, W.Va., says he'll be working side by Side with women in the military when he graduates. "So we might as well start learning how to live and work together now, in a college environment," he says. He says students who attend all-male military institutions like VMI and the citadel may bring unrealistic attitudes about women when they enter military service.

"By being here with the females, we can see how they react and what they are capable of doing," Loving says. He admits that, in the beginning, he was skeptical of women's ability to perform in the corps. "But by living here, getting to know them as friends, studying and talking with them, I know women can perform as well as men," he says.

For Becky Avery (HR '97), of Newport News, the opportunity to Make close friendships with the men in her dormitory has been a definite plus. "We're all here for an education, but part of that education is learning to live with all kinds of people," Avery says. " I've become very close to some of the males in my dorm almost, like we're family."

Avery is not planning a military career, but she says the friendships made and lessons learned from coed dorm life will bring depth to her work as a middle school teacher, "It's all part of the educational package," she says.

Virginia Tech Magazine, vol. 18, no.3 (spring 1996): 6&7

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