Infantry, the military division where combat is part of the job, was once exclusive to men. But a policy change in the army this year is now allowing women access to the front lines.
For third year cadet Pauline Ovalle, 22, it’s an opportunity she’s been hoping for. Even when she joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in UC Davis as a freshman, she wanted to find a way into infantry.
She heard rumors over the years that infantry could possibly open up to women. She says she was excited and anxious when it happened.
“This is no longer something I could just think about,” Ovalle says. “This is something that was gonna happen. “
She became interested in the military after hearing a recruiter talk about the army at a career day event in middle school. She has wanted to be in infantry ever since.
“The fact that you have to get up early in the morning and exercise and be the best at every moment, compelled me to join the army just because of the competitive environment and the physical rigor required to join,” Ovalle says.
After graduating high school, Ovalle attended naval academy for a year, until her parents divorced. She wanted to do something in the army where she could take care of her family and have a higher ranking. She set her eyes on UC Davis’ ROTC program, where she can automatically become an officer after graduating.
That means if she is accepted into infantry, she’ll be tasked with commanding a platoon on missions and counter-insurgencies.
“Pretty much killing the enemy and taking care of our country,” Ovalle says.
So far, 22 women out of 44 applicants have been approved for infantry in the U.S. since the recent policy change. Prior to that, only women in special forces were involved in combat.
Captain Adam Dortona from Sacramento State’s ROTC program has worked with Ovalle since her freshman year. He believes Ovalle is a highly qualified candidate for infantry, a position where he says cadets have a 20 percent chance nationwide of being accepted into.
“She’s a tenacious person, very aggressive, knows how get what she wants … characteristics that I would expect in any good soldier, and I’m excited to see how she transitions to trying to go and proceed with this infantry thing,” Dortona says.
Basic requirements to join infantry include being between ages 17-34 and citizenship in the U.S., along with different physical training score requirements based on age brackets. The minimum score to pass Advanced Individual Training (AIT) is 150 and the maximum score possible is 300.
Along with a physical score, academic standards are also a must. Ovalle believes her Physical Training (PT) score of 290 and GPA of 3.6 puts her at a good standing to be approved for infantry.
“I believe that if I constantly work on my leadership skills, I’ll be there and as long as I can keep up my PT scores, I can meet that goal,” Ovalle says.
Dortona says for her to increase her chances of being accepted, she will need to go to ranger school after completing basic infantry training.
“She’s got a long, tough road ahead of her,” Dortona says. “It’s not impossible, so she’s just going to have to train real hard and want it real hard.”
The third year cadets in ROTC, like Ovalle, go to a summer camp in Fort Knox, Kentucky to be tested physically and strategically. Those who perform well have higher chances of being approved for their branch of choice.
Sacramento State and UC Davis prepare their cadets for Fort Knox every year by staging a field exercise where all decisions rested on the shoulders of third year cadets.
One such exercise was held May 6 through 7 at a ranch in Yolo County. This is where Ovalle got to demonstrate her abilities as a leader.
The cadets form two teams – Bluefor, a large group of over 40 cadets defending their home base and Redfor, a smaller guerrilla force of 18 meant to act as insurgents. Ovalle was stationed as commanding officer in charge of all Bluefor.
“That’s a huge element that most people don’t even get to touch until their fifth year in the real army,” Dortona says.
For this exercise, the weapons of choice are paintball guns. Cadets are declared casualties by supervisors if shot by a paintball gun. They are declared dead if shot in a fatal part of the body, like the head or heart.
Ovalle’s first challenge came Friday evening. She had to break contact with Redfor to treat a cadet who was declared a casualty for standing too close to a cliff without taking cover.
She requested a vehicle transport for the casualty but waited about an hour because of poor communication signal. This left them vulnerable for a possible attack, but they made it back to home base without seeing any fire.
Saturday morning presented a situation where Ovalle was forced to react quicker. Her unit was ambushed from behind while they were pursuing a handful of Redfor up a hill.
Ovalle found the weekend as a leader challenging because she was in command of such a large group of people and made the decision to split them up. She was frequently assessed by Dortona and other supervisors on and off missions.
“I try not to take the yelling personal,” Ovalle says. “I really try to never let that get to you. You kind of just look past that and just listen to what they’re saying, and they’re really there to ultimately help you out and that’s what I think about and really appreciate all the times they were kind of hard on me or else the mission could have gone really bad.”
Fourth year cadet Christian Johnson, who served as a photographer for the weekend, first met Ovalle in his second year. They were in the same squad one year.
“She was always someone physically fit, sometimes she can be a little bit of a goof, but I feel like she’s definitely matured and gotten better as she’s moved toward her MSlll [third] year,” Johnson says.
Fourth year cadets who have already been to Fort Knox do not take part in field missions but instead assess the performance of third year leaders.
Ovalle, who heads to Fort Knox this summer, will know toward the end of this year if she will be admitted into army infantry. If she makes it, Dortona says she will be the first female cadet in the Northern California to achieve this.