BACK IN 1976, I was a recent graduate of Rutgers University and was standing at attention at 6 a.m. in Delta Platoon at Fort Bragg, N.C. It was my first Army muster formation of advanced ROTC camp.

This was the beginning of six gruelling weeks of infantry maneuvers, road marches, rappelling, wedge formations, swamps, rifle ranges, sleeping on the ground with no pup tents and training that bore a distinct resemblance to that of a typical Army GI.

This was the second year that Fort Bragg had women in its ROTC camp, but this was the first time women were included in every aspect of the training. My red hair was cut the shortest ever and I was one of about 200 women; after the first week, we lost a few and were down to 168. Only five of us received second lieutenant commissions; I was one.

In that muster formation, I was in my T-shirt and fatigues and combat boots waiting for my commander to finish roll so we could start physical training. It felt pretty weird being the only woman.

My commander, a captain and a rough, tough infantry-type, airborne, Ranger, Pathfinder and woman-in-the-Army-hater, succeeded in making me feel like any other young, green cadet: an overwhelming feeling that we were all dumber than heck and that anything we did was totally wrong. All of us had a lot to learn and I was not considered any different. I had too many other things to worry about and I did not spend any of my precious free time worrying about being a "threat" or an intruder in an all-male world.

We all used horrible language as a healthy outlet. S---, I put pants on one leg at a time, same as the men. But the most important aspect was the fact that we were all in it together and we had to stick together and we were all friends.

Here's one story that may show you what I mean:

We were out in the woods and we had just spent the day marching silently for over 17 miles of sandy, hard-to-walk-in Carolina terrain. I had a mean case of poison ivy and my camouflage itched in my right ear. We had walked through three swamps and my boots were still damp. So were my T-shirt and underwear. t

It was about 8 at night and we had a long night ahead of us and we never knew when we would be under a simulated attack. It was pitch dark and we had lost three guys during the day from heat exhaustion. I was feeling thirsty and reached for a swig of water from my canteen and found it empty.

"Never let yourself go dry" -- famous words to live by. One guy standing next to me, who was nicknamed "Tic" because he always managed to get a tick in the most inappropriate spot of the male anatomy, turned to me and handed me his canteen. I took a swig, making sure it wasn't his last drop, brushed my mouth with my camouflaged hand and said, "Thanks, Tic." Our commander yelled, "Hey, Zeman, shut up," and then told the platoon, "Stay in your positions, one man on guard and one man sleep, two hours on and four hours of sleep."

So, you're wondering where a girl changes into her nightie, brushes her teeth, curls her hair and hops into a freshly made bed? This young cadet felt quite humble as she lay down on the cold ground next to her mate, McKenzie, who said, "You sleep first and I'll wake you up in four hours, and if you're cold [it gets chilly in the night] sleep with your back next to mine." y

Since my clothes were still damp and it was chilly, I snuggled as best as I could could, said my prayers and added a special "thank you" for letting me share a piece of the earth with McKenzie. I don't think either one of us felt threatened or felt any sexual overtones. It was good to have a friend.

None of my male peers ever made things easier for me or watched out for me because I was a female and supposedly weaker. We all reached points of physical exhaustion and we supported each other with kindness but we always carried our own load. I was a cadet receiving training among some 2,200 male cadets. We did our best and worked hard.

Sometimes I did chinups in the mess hall line. Sometimes I did pushups in mud puddles for not being able to do as many chinups as the men or for any other reason the CO could think of -- one was because my hair was red and gave our position away to the simulated enemy. Red hair is hard to hide.

I sang cadence calls about women to relieve the pressure. One weekend I spent my time making up songs about men and Monday morning when we were marching off to war games, I blew the platoon away with: "Hey, barbar-ree-ba, hey, barbar-ree-ba, if all of the GIs were fishes in the sea, and I was a mermaid, I'd catch them all for me."

Sometimes on Sunday night the platoon would meet for a couple of beers and I was right there with them, smoking and joking and telling war stories. One thing I liked was that the guys would treat me with respect but also treated me as one of them.

One guy said, "Hey, Z, I don't know how you do it but here you are playing in the woods with a bunch of stinking men and you always manage to come up smelling like a rose. You're a hell of a lady and this place would be hell without you." I consider my female role intact as well as enhanced by my Army experience. I grew as a person. We related to each other on a human level, regardless of sex but yet secure in our roles.

I spent my active duty tour at Fort Campbell. In my batallion I was a platoon leader and had about 25 women and 68 men in my supply platoon. Our batallion in 1977 had some 700 troops and about 130 or so were women. We housed our women with the men.

As an officer, one of my many extra duties was pulling 24-hour duty, which included staying awake in the commander's office guarding the battalion. Three times during the night I had to walk through the 17 barracks for bed check.

I've seen men in their underwear, out of their underwear, in the shower, in bed, in fights, drunk, high on drugs, overdosed on drugs, cursing, living, dying, laughing, crying and doing everything else that a typical GI does in the cramped and ramshackle barracks he calls home.

It's a sorry way to live and I hated to interrupt what little privacy he could get but the damn place was secure whenever I had duty. When we began housing women with the men I told them life was going to be different for both parties. But I ended my lecture by saying, "Now you can live like adults as they do in the civilian world. God put us on this earth together; we have a place, next to you. We are here to help you win the war. We support you and want to work with you, for a common cause, and not against you."

A lot of the men used to come to me with their problems. They felt they could talk to me rather than the commander, who was a man. About a year later I knew more about the troops than the battalion commander. One of my extra duties was as human relations officer and that enabled me to conduct "gripe sessions."

I never heard any complaints about women in the Army from the troops. If I did, it was a personality clash. Did you hear that there are women at West Point now? Do you know that women are in the Army and fill positions that otherwise would not be filled because of the shortage of male volunteers? Why, I had women in my motor pools who could change tires better than men. I can shoot expert on the following weapons: M-16, M60 and .45. My boss, a great captain whom I admired greatly, couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a weapon; he couldn't even throw it and hit it!

When I left the service in 1978 to finish my master's degree in counseling at the College of William and Mary, I left with fond memories and a medal.

I was asked by my battalion commander (who, by the way, was a confirmed women-in-the-Army-hater) to stay in the Army because they needed good soldiers like me. I was also asked to be a company commander. These were line companies -- no, not combat, but support units. If the balloon were ever to go up, I would not have been able to deploy with my company. Some civilian draftee -- male, of course -- would pick up my company and take it to war . . . just because I'm a woman.

Now, as to women being allowed into combat, we have serious physical limits but if the war's in need of help, I'll cover my red hair as best as possible and grab my M16 and go. I love my country just the same as all the male chauvinists who can't fire a weapon but can run their mouths.

It's too bad that William Greider did not know all the facts when he wrote the article, "Women: A Threat to Barracks Life" [Outlook, Feb. 24, 1980]. Because we're already there, sleeping peacefully.