Interview Date: November 25, 2011
Experiences: U.S. Army
Being a Woman in the United States Army during the 1980s
At a very early age in her life, Alicia Parra knew she wanted more in life than being a common house wife. She had a dream of traveling the world and knew the only realistic way of accomplishing this was to join the United States Army. All of the following comes from an interview with Alicia Parra, my mother, on November 25, 2011, except as noted.
Alicia was born on January 15, 1961 in El Paso, Texas. Being the tenth of eleven siblings, and being a female, the idea of college was never discussed in her family. Her family lived a life of simplicity but was always moving up and down the west coast and back and forth between Texas and California. She never attended just one school or was able to keep in touch with childhood friends because of this. Also, she only spoke Spanish until the third grade. Growing up in a migrant family, Alicia would help out her family by working out in the fields picking prunes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and topping garlic. She found that working in the fields was not what she wanted out of life.
Being raised in the 1960s, Alicia lived in a time where kids would actively play all day to keep themselves entertained. But being a female it was frowned up by her older sisters and mother. She was supposed to be in the kitchen learning how to cook and take care of household chores. For Alicia this was not fun or fair. She wanted to be outside playing with her brothers, riding bikes, and playing sports. Now, looking back, she does not regret this but does joke that she wished she had spent a little more time in the kitchen with her mother because she cannot remember how to make some of her favorite dishes.
In high school she wasn’t allowed to play sports for her school. Instead she took care of her brother’s and sister’s children after school. She always felt it was unfair that the men in her family were given much more freedom than she was, just because she was a female. In school, Alicia was an above average student, earning a GPA of 3.0 and higher over her four years of high school. Once she graduated she knew what she was going to do with her life: join the United States Army.
She hadn’t told anybody in her family, including her parents. She turned 18 earlier in the year and signed for service before graduation. The day after she graduated she was set to leave for basic training. She had her bags packed and told her father the night before, knowing there was no way he could stop her. For a brief period he wouldn’t talk to her but her mother always wrote. Soon after she left he forgave her secrecy and encouraged her in his own way.
Joining the military was not common in this time period. Alicia left for her basic training in the summer of 1980. Although the U.S. was becoming more adapted to the idea, most were still against having woman in the front-lines or in hand to hand combat. More women were joining the military during this time though. According to the article Women in the Military, in “1973, when the male draft ended and the All-Volunteer Force began, the percentage of women among U.S. military personnel has increased dramatically, from 1.6 percent in 1973, to 8.5 percent in 1980, to 10.8 percent in 1989” (feminism). And in August 1982, the Secretary of Defense ordered the increase in Army enlisted women’s strength from 65,000 to 70,000 and officers from 9,000 to 13,000, including medical personnel (army.mil).
Joining the military was not a family tradition in Alicia’s family. She had two older brothers who had joined before her, Raul Parra and Joe Parra. Raul was discharged on medical after basic training and Joe served 4 years in the Army. Alicia left for the military when the nation was at peace. She did not serve in any war or fight in any battles. She was able to travel the world as she had planned. After taking the oath in El Paso, Texas, Alicia left to Fort Jackson in South Carolina for basic training. It lasted three months.
During her stay at Fort Jackson Alicia learned the fundamentals of the Army. Most of her duties included the usual exercising, training with weapons, marching drills, marching/running to different ranges to use m16 rifle on targets, m60 machine gun and throw hand grenades. In her unit there were about 54 privates all from different backgrounds and different ethnicities. Basic training sorted out those who would graduate, and not all graduated. In order to accomplish the graduation goals one had to take part in several tests including a physical fitness test, knowledge of the army, and knowledge of weapons. For example, to graduate you had to complete a physical fitness exam consisting of a two mile run to be finished in about 18 minutes or less, 40 push-ups (2min), and about 80 sit-ups (2min). Also assemble and disassemble an m16, 45 pistol and hit targets, night fire, hand grenades, map reading, directions and read map coordinates, earn medals, know all ranks of army, and know general and special orders.
Alicia recalls basic training as the move from civilian to soldier. The army strips you of your identity; “You now belong to the government.” Upon arriving, the sergeants started out by taking away all of your personal belongings and privates were issued only military clothing. Also they put all your belongings in your suitcase, labeled it, and then kept it in storage until you graduated. She recalls they were wakened up very early in the morning and started routines of exercising, marching, running and military training. The living quarters were nothing fancy: “During basic training it was an open floor with bunk beds, small closet (cabinet) and foot locker for each of us. The mess hall was basically a huge cafeteria where you waited in line, received your food and had a limited time to eat it. Depending on the “mood” of the sergeants, about 2 to 10 minutes. Once the sergeant was finished eating that meant everyone was done eating.”
While in the Army, privates were not allotted very much “off-time”. About one Sunday every two months was given to the privates. Alicia spent this time going to the movies or just plain relaxing off the base. Also on Sundays Alicia would attend Catholic mass, and in any other spare time she wrote to her parents and siblings back home.
One thing that made her happy about joining the Army was that she was able to help her parents financially. She was paid about $500 dollars a month, and even though that was not much, even in her time, she was given room and board, food, and medical and dental. She sent money home to her parents every month. Another goal she accomplished over her service was to travel overseas. She traveled all over the United States including South Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, Arizona, Washington D.C. and other parts of Texas. When she traveled overseas she went to Paris, France, and Nuremberg, Germany and a trip to Berlin.
After basic training was complete and after graduating, Alicia attended AIT, Advanced Individual Training at Fort Jackson to study for administration specialist. It was a self-paced program and she was selected as an honor graduate for completing the course in less than 20 days.
She was discharged in July 1983 in Oakland, California. She then enlisted for an additional 2 years in the Army Reserve. After all her accomplishments, personally and according to the military, she considers the experience one of the best in her life; although she did face some hardships being a double minority in the service, Hispanic and female. She recalls not being given credit by her sergeants for her achievements. Her standards of success were the same as the men in her group. “I was successful in every aspect of training and when I beat a lot of the men in the unit on the rifle range the sergeant would not accept it. They would say ‘to do it again, must of been luck’. It was frustrating to say the least.” She recalls her drill sergeants constant comment about wanting to “join the men’s army” and she would reply, “I wanted to join the army.” Her unit was co-ed. She says this put more pressure on the women; men would not compete against them and would disrespect their accomplishments. “When we had guard duty, we had to insist on being teamed up with women as per Army regulation but again it was frowned upon as if we were asking for special treatment.”
Through it all she still tributes the Army for giving her more than combat training: “Thinking back I credit the military for my greatest accomplishment which was to become independent, confident, and encounter people who taught me about the Lord.” Growing up, Alicia was brought up in the Catholic religion but in Germany she became a Christian and still follows the religion faithfully today. Also for job training. She got a job in companies as an administrative assistant. She currently works for the Hollister School District and her training and experience from the military contributed to getting this job. “The human resource person later told me that the only reason I got was called for an interview was because they wanted to meet a female veteran. I ended up getting the job.”
While interviewing my mother, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride in her. I’ve always been proud of my mom and have looked up to her as a role model, but to sit down and talk to her one on one about her military experience was something I haven’t done before. I can see how strong and courageous she was by surprising her parents about joining the army. That was not something you did in her family, especially to my grandfather. She says it is still something that had to be done or there would have been no way of leaving with their permission and that it ultimately brought them closer together.
I'm always surprised to hear stories of her time in the Army. Listening to her brag about her medals for shooting rifles and throwing grenades seems so off character to the loving mother I’ve grown up with. I like to scare boys I’m dating with stories about my mom in the Army. I think it’s funny how in society people view the father of the daughter as the parent to fear, but it’s the opposite in my family. My mother has gained so much through her time in the Army: “The best memories were being able to accomplish everything that was assigned and/or expected of me. I was tested physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It gave me a confidence.” I admire my mom for her courage and determination.
Parra, Alicia, mother (Hollister, California; 25 November 2011)
http://feminism.eserver.org/workplace/professions/women-in-the-military.txt; November 21, 2011.
http://www.army.mil/women/newera.html; November 21, 2011.
San Jose City College Class: History 1
Contact: Tom Izu