• U.S.

TO HELL WEEK AND BACK

6 minute read
Richard Lacayo

At least 30 cadets dropped out of the Citadel’s freshman class last week. Shannon Faulkner is the only one whose name people will remember. After fighting since 1993 to become the first female cadet in the school’s 152-year history, Faulkner floundered for less than five days, most of them spent in the campus infirmary, before deciding to quit. “The past 2-1/2 years came crashing down on me in an instant,” she said in a quavering voice when announcing her decision. In a final sign of how anxious some people at the school were to be rid of her, when she returned to her barracks to gather her belongings, she found they had already been packed.

Though thousands of women have graduated from the nation’s service academies in the past two decades, their presence in uniform is still an uncomfortable fact of life for many men. At her departure Faulkner explained that there would be an injustice in “staying and killing myself just for the political point.” But to the delight of her critics, there were political points to be scored in her quitting too.

Back with her parents now in Powdersville, South Carolina, Faulkner says she won’t return to the Citadel and has no regrets about her quick exit: “I’d rather walk out than be carried out.” There were times when she thought it might come to that. Early Saturday morning, Faulkner and her parents had driven to the Citadel from a Charleston hotel nearby. Because of death threats, she was escorted by federal marshals who checked out the campus and its approaches before the Faulkners entered by way of the school’s back gate.

Despite that, Faulkner says there were some welcoming voices when she arrived. In the cafeteria three black women workers gave her a hug and told her, “Welcome home.” Roses arrived from the mother and sisters of some Citadel alumni. But at an ecumenical service at the campus chapel, a woman abruptly rose and left as soon as the Faulkners sat down in the same pew.

All that was the prelude to Monday, a day of Egyptian heat and heavy humidity, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees. The weather made a perfect start for Hell Week, the days of forced marching, push-ups and verbal badgering that introduces new cadets to their life as “knobs”-campus slang for the shave-headed plebes. Faulkner had already created resentment by resisting the requirement to shave her head. The school ultimately allowed an off-the-shoulder cut, similar to the regulation accepted for women at the service academies. But in the end, that accommodation was far from what she needed to get through. After hours of exercising in the morning sun, she was unable to hold down her lunch-Beefaroni-or even a few swallows of Gatorade. With four male cadets who were also suffering physical distress, she reported to the infirmary. All were treated and discharged during the afternoon. Faulkner and three others returned soon after when they became sick again.

She and one other cadet remained overnight in the infirmary, where Faulkner, still unable to hold down even a few crackers, was fed intravenously. She remained in the infirmary until Friday. By then Citadel spokesman Colonel Terry Leedom was announcing that for Faulkner, trying to make up for missing Hell Week would be like “entering the Indianapolis 500 on the 25th lap.”

Faulkner had by that time already decided to give up. On Friday morning she was visited by Regimental Commander Matt Pantsari, 21, the highest-ranking cadet on campus, whose responsibilities include interviewing students who have opted to leave. “[She was] pale and shaky, just wiped out,” he says. “The fact that the whole world was watching her and the tough, tough physical regimen here combined to put her under more stress than anyone could endure.”

When she took on the role of pathbreaker, Faulkner may not have understood its emotional toll. She was accepted at the Citadel on the basis of an application that made no reference to her gender. Once school administrators discovered she was female, they withdrew their offer. In March 1993 she sued, claiming the all-male policy was unconstitutional. Under a court order issued by U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck, she was admitted to day classes the following January until her suit to be accepted as a full cadet could be heard. This April an appeals court decided Faulkner could join the corps, unless South Carolina could offer by August a court-approved program providing similar military leadership education for women at another campus.

But the Citadel stands out even among the schools that claim to prepare Americans for the battlefield. Unlike the service-affiliated academies such as West Point and Annapolis, the Citadel, only a third of whose graduates enter the military, remains devoted to an implacably all-male culture. And despite efforts to curb them, the school’s dark hazing rituals have become legendary, thanks in part to Pat Conroy’s novel The Lords of Discipline. Some of Faulkner’s defenders say it was foolish of her to try to enter such a place on her own. When the first women were admitted to West Point in 1976, there were 119 of them, almost 9% of their class. Every Citadel cadet knows what it’s like to endure the freshman indignities. But only Faulkner knew how it felt to suffer them at a place where many classmates had T shirts describing the student body as 1,952 BULLDOGS AND 1 BITCH.

Critics say she washed out because women can’t hack it. “You can only go so far maintaining the fiction that men and women are alike and interchangeable,” says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness in Livonia, Michigan. “The next time we go to war, there’s going to be women around, but there won’t be any infirmaries for them to go to when the going gets rough.”

Or maybe it was just that Faulkner herself was not in shape to face a challenge that a woman in better condition would have handled. Judge Houck had rejected the school’s last-minute legal argument that she was 20 lbs. overweight and physically unfit for the corps. But the plumpish Faulkner who showed up for the start of Hell Week didn’t appear to have done much preseason training. “The key lesson here is that women need to be just as prepared as men,” says former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Barbara Pope.

While Faulkner won’t be returning, one of her lawyers, Val Vojdik, promises that the fight to open the Citadel to women is not ending: “If the Citadel thinks it can solve the problem through Shannon’s leaving, they’re dead wrong.” Don’t tell that yet to the cadets. At the first word that Faulkner was going, many of them cheered, honked car horns and took to a checkerboard-patterned quadrangle to perform triumphant push-ups. Maybe it was heat of all kinds that knocked Faulkner out of the Citadel last week. What no one agrees upon is just what kind of heat mattered most.

–Reported by Joseph J. Kane/Powdersville, Lisa H. Towle/Raleigh and Mark Thompson/Washington

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