West Hartford Author Sara Hammel: Why She Took Part in a Strength Training Experiment with the Military

Sara and the one soldier in the study, Pfc. Marion Cavanaugh, on the Army base in 1995. Courtesy photo

March is Women’s History Month, and West Hartford resident and best-selling author Sara Hammel, shares an excerpt from her new book about why she ‘got strong for military women’ during an experiment run by the U.S. Army.

Sara Hammel. Courtesy photo

Submitted by Sara Hammel

In 1995, when women were still banned from most ground combat roles in the U.S. military, West Hartford writer Sara Hammel volunteered to be a civilian test subject in an extreme and controversial seven-month Army experiment designed to determine if women could get strong enough to perform the military’s toughest tasks.

She recounts the experience of going through the rigorous physical training along with 45 other Massachusetts women in her new best-selling book The Strong Ones: How a Band of Civilian Women Made Their Mark on the Army.

In the book, an excerpt from which can be found below. she traces the test subjects through the decades to find out where they are now – and tracks down how their work affected future military women. (Learn more about the study here, here and here).


By Sara Hammel

May 1995

‘Strong Ones’ book cover. Courtesy image

There is a certain kind of woman who lives to work out. She crams exercise into her day at the expense of sleep, chases endorphins like a surfer chases waves, climbs mountains, competes in mud runs, flips tractor tires. Maybe she joins the military to make a career of it.

We were not those women. The forty-five civilian volunteers of the Army strength study taking place on a base in Massachusetts that year were, by and large, recently off the couch, lapsed college athletes, occasional joggers or sometime observers of sport who set forth to do something extraordinary, and as they signed their names to the human test subject agreement thought, Maybe it’s my turn. Maybe this is my one shot to find out what I’m made of. I’m going to help change the world – watch me.

When the experiment first began, I stood on the edge of the wood with six other women I barely knew, wobbling under the weight of my 75-pound pack as we waited for the go signal. The volunteers – all civilians save for one – had been divided into four training groups for the seven-month trial. I was assigned to C-Group, a ragtag assortment of test subjects who trained every day at one-thirty.

I stared down a wooded path with steep hills and sharp bends, impossibly narrow in parts and strewn with hazards of rocks and roots, kicked the dust into dirty clouds, felt the vibration in the soles of my feet. I was nervously blurting unhelpful things: My feet already hurt. This doesn’t look that hard. This pack is pulling me down. I like your boots. I kept an eye on our trainer Eric Lammi, blond and six-three and wryly, uproariously funny, except when he wielded his dreaded stopwatch and needed us to perform. There was nothing amusing to him about our scores, our times, our training. An Olympic trials-caliber decathlete did not become that by getting distracted by life’s frivolities, worrying whether he was liked, or by coddling anyone.

Nadine was there, standing near me if not next to me, her shoulder-length chestnut curls held back by a lilac headband tied with a bow. She strode to the start line with careful examination, a quiet way about her, and curious brown eyes. Elle, still the most authentically positive woman I ever met, flanked my other side. The study’s one soldier, Private First Class Marion Cavanaugh, always quietly did her job and waited on the fringes.

I looped my thumbs under my shoulder straps as Eric offered one final tip before sending us on our way. “You’ll walk, shuffle, jog, run – whatever gets you to the finish line fastest,” he told us. Run? With this thing on? Don’t fall on your ass, I thought. Don’t break your teeth on a rock and have to claw your way home through the dirt. “Your times today will set the stage for the next seven months.”

The pack’s belt dug into my waist. My boots weren’t broken in yet. I was uncomfortable in my skin as a civilian invading a severe, imposing military world, and I’d felt like an interloper the moment I’d driven my car past the Army base’s drab, gray buildings and walked their halls for the first time …

Elle, a stay-at-home mom, smiled through obvious jitters. They said we couldn’t do it, so we knew we must. Eric hit his timer and yelled for us to Go, go, go! We took our first steps in the journey to change our bodies – and maybe the world. My legs were leaden and my boot scraped the ground as I walked; I was as nimble as a glacier. The pack pressed on my back, my lungs, my shoulders. A smaller woman next to me was panting and falling behind. The backpack was two-thirds of her body weight. Everything about the scene screamed underdogs, outliers, insanity. They called us ordinary, and on paper perhaps we were: Teachers, stay-at-home moms, working moms, bartenders, beauticians, lawyers, a landscaper, a prison guard and one reporter had joined up. Some women hadn’t been to a gym … ever. Some struggled to jog a mile without a backpack. Some were not much heavier than the packs they were carrying.

That day in the woods I stumbled and just barely stopped myself from going flying. And then a voice blasted through the spring air and echoed in the wood. “You can do it. Come on! Don’t give up. We’re in this together.” It was Elle again. We’re in this together. Oh, so I wasn’t alone, even though I felt like it for brief moments when my insecurities swarmed me like killer bees. That day, I kept going. I was in those woods trying to change the world in my own small way, as were many of the test subjects who’d taken over a patch of this Army base for an experiment whose goal was simple on its face: To determine if women could get strong enough to succeed at the toughest military jobs usually assigned to men. We were stand-ins for female soldiers who were busy doing the work of defending our country.

Simple as the study’s stated goal was, it carried with it a long history of sexism, politics and controversy, and it had already attracted the attention of powerful people in Washington – mostly politicians and conservative pundits, mostly male – who’d tried to halt it before it could start. And so that day, gutting it out in those woods, we bore a weight greater than the hunks of metal in our packs.

No one was sure where it would lead. No one knew whether this attempt would explode or fizzle out like faulty fireworks, if we would stay the course as we pushed our bodies past their limits or if we would fail military women – or all women. What had we gotten ourselves into? And who in their right minds would sign us up for something like this? Who would risk looking like fools by taking a political hot potato and passing it off to a bunch of untrained, untested civilians?

—Excerpted from The Strong Ones, ©Sara Hammel, available to purchase everywhere books are sold online from independent bookstores to Amazon.

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