Linda Bryant saw her enlistment in the U.S. Army as a way out of a small southern town, but it also positioned her at a pivotal moment in Army history.
Bryant grew up in Moultrie, Ga., a farming community offering typical small-town employment opportunities – hospital, school, insurance companies. She said it’s the kind of place where, if you get behind a farmer hauling a trailer of cantaloupes, you should plan on taking your time.
The year was 1977. Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment five years earlier, and the 50 states were discussing what ultimately would be a failed ratification process for constitutionally guaranteed gender equality. In May, Bryant enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the women’s branch of the U.S. Army, segregated from all-male units.
But change was coming.
The WAC originated in May 1942 as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), an auxiliary Army service with no military status that filled non-combat positions, freeing up men for the World War II battlefront. WAACs served on Army posts in the United States and overseas, under women commanders, with separate grade titles and pay schedules from men. In September 1943, Congress granted the WAAC military status and dropped “Auxiliary” from its name. Although women could have the same grade titles, pay, benefits and privileges as men, they could not command men’s units, participate in combat or rise above the rank of lieutenant colonel.
The promotion restriction remained in place until November 1967, when Congress passed a law allowing women to compete for promotion to general and flag rank. Other policy changes followed, including permission for women to command men’s units, serve in combat support positions, pilot noncombat planes and remain on active duty while pregnant.
The WAC was in its final months when Bryant enlisted in May 1977. Her enlistment officer gave her the choice of being a cook or artillery.
“I didn’t want to wash pots, so I chose artillery,” she said.
Bryant underwent basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) as an artillery mechanic at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG). By that time, she said, the cosmetics lessons and the PT shorts and skirts of the 1940s and 50s were long gone. Women wore fatigues like the men, but physical requirements were still less taxing.
“We only had to run a half mile in PT,” she noted, as opposed to two miles for the men.
In October 1978, Congress disbanded the corps as a separate branch of the Army, and the all-female units were integrated with male units. Bryant said she and many of her fellow WACs saw the change as a natural progression of the women’s movement of the 1970s.
“For women to move forward, it seems that it was necessary to disband the WAC,” she said. “Women are now in various positions working on armored vehicles and aircrafts and serving as pilots, attorneys, etc.”
Bryant said she did not face notable challenges at APG during integration of the units, but after AIT was complete, she moved to Germany.
“When I first assigned into a maintenance company in Germany, I don’t think they were too thrilled that I was there. They’d had a female who didn’t want to get dirty, so when I walked in, they weren’t happy they had another female mechanic. They would give me some of the nasty jobs, packing bearings, things like that.”
Bryant noted both men and women don’t want to do certain kinds of jobs, but it bothered her when women used gender as an excuse. Eventually, Bryant said she felt more accepted.
“I think it was because I was determined to do my part and wasn't afraid to get my hands dirty. After they saw that it was no big deal, we got along OK,” she said.
Her platoon in Germany had fire control mechanics and M60 tank turret mechanics. Bryant had trained as an artillery mechanic, but because there wasn’t any artillery on the installation in Germany, she trained as a turret mechanic. The male mechanics slept in a tent on the range, but as a female, Bryant had to be driven back to the barracks at night. And despite her choice during enlistment, she sometimes ended up being a cook anyway.
“I had a little gas propane stove, and I’d stop by the mess hall and get eggs and bacon, so I’d cook breakfast when I got there to feed everybody.”
Bryant says she always thought the men didn’t mind having a woman in their ranks, if the woman would work and pull her own weight. In Bryant’s case, that expression could be taken literally.
The toolbox Bryant used was filled with huge wrenches and other tools needed for artillery repair. It was so heavy, she couldn’t lift it herself, but she refused to ask anyone for help, so she put wheels on it. The men in her platoon saw it as an opportunity to have some fun.
“The guys put dog ears on it and a little tail and stuff, but I left it. I sure did. They were messing with me, but that’s OK. I didn’t get upset about stuff like that,” Bryant said.
When the WAC was being integrated with the all-male units, Bryant said there were no briefings on what to do if she encountered sexual harassment.
“Nobody ever really talked about that,” she said, and was quick to add that she never personally experienced sexual harassment in the Army. That’s not to say Bryant never attracted unwanted attention, but it wasn’t from the members of her company.
“I was at a club in Germany, and this guy kept pestering me. I told him I didn’t want to dance, and the guys in my company all surrounded me,” she said. “It was more like they would take care of me.”
In Germany Bryant met her husband, James, a fellow soldier. The couple returned from Germany in 1979 and were stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. Linda worked in the office as a reenlistment NCO, speaking to soldiers about staying on as active duty when their enlistments were coming to an end.
Bryant’s enlistment ended in 1981. She and James returned to Germany in 1982 and stayed until 1988, when a permanent change of station brought their family to APG, where Bryant’s military career began 40 years ago.
“I started working at APG in ‘89 in the Logistics Directorate, which was a garrison activity, and transferred to the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center in 2000 as a human resources technician,” she said.
Bryant was selected as a Labor/Management Employee Relations (L/MER) Specialist intern in 2002, and in 2008 accepted a supervisory position as L/MER Chief. Bryant transferred to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity in October 2016, where she serves as a human resources specialist.
While she never experienced sexual harassment in the Army, she has seen cases as a supervisor in L/MER.
“A lot of people call it the ‘good old boy’ system. It’s not appropriate, and maybe an individual of a certain age thinks it’s OK to call you ‘sugar.’ Younger people are more open about a lot of things, and they probably don’t think that way,” she said. “Of course there are some individuals that have certain opinions or act in certain ways that aren’t professional but I think there are good and bad individuals in all generations.”
While the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault provides stark evidence of ongoing challenges for women in the workplace, Bryant noted the significant changes for women she witnessed during her career.
“I think women have actually come a long way,” she said. “There are more women in charge, but younger people don’t realize it.” She added that, because it’s all they’ve known, young people assume women will hold positions of authority.
Bryant has been eligible for retirement for about four years, and she is considering taking that step, but she hasn’t decided when that will be. That milestone and the conversation for this interview gave her an opportunity to reflect on her active duty and civilian service, as well as on her role during a historic time for the U.S. Army.