Beverly Lass grew up in a town in Missouri 55 miles from the nearest movie theater. She was bored and she left home by the same route used by generations of American men: she got herself down to a recruiting station and joined the Army.
On a recent rainy night in the U.S. Army's version of Gerogia, Pvt. Laas, 21, sat in an on-base bar swirling with fatigue green, shaved heads and cigarette smoke and explained why she enlisted.
"I wanted to get away from home and see things and I figured if I put in my time with Uncle Sam I couldn't lose," said Laas, as the insistent disco beat of "More Than a Woman to Me" filled the bar.
After seven months in what used to be called "this man's Army" Laas said she thinks clerical work in the chaplain's office beats boredom in Stover, Mo., pop. 850.
Army life for Laas and the 746 other women who live here among nearly 24,000 men at the Army's major infantry center is colored by the feelings held by many members of Benning's majority sex -- that women are interlopers on a base some call "Macho Heaven."
Official Army policy, not statute, bars the nearly 62,000 women in the Army from jobs involving routine participation in close combat. In the last few years the Army has opened large numbers of jobs to women, but about one quarter of all jobs remain closed.
The question of how far to extend sexual equality in the military -- whether to register women for the draft, whether to send them into combat -- has been touched off by President Carte's call last week for registration of the nation's draft-age males. Registration of women, an action that would require congressional approval, is likely to be the subject of impassioned, if not occasionally hysterical, debate in Washington and elsewhere.
Military women have been the subject of numerous studies since the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973, when they began filling the gaps caused by a decline in the number of willing and able male recruits.
The average woman recruit is smaller and weaker than her male counterpart Defense Department studies show. But she is also considerably brighter, better educated and much less likely to become a discipline problem or miss time from work. There is also a 40 percent chance that she will drop out of the Army before finishing her first tour. Male enlistees run a 32 percent likelihood of leaving the service prematurely.
"Women join the military for the same reasons men do," said Jill Wine Volner, who recently resigned as the Army's general counsel. "It's a way out of a small town, a way to leave home, learn a skill and there are educational benefits. Travel's a big attraction, and so is a guaranteed job in periods of unemployment."
Women say the Army does indeed provide security, equal pay, independence from one's family and an arena for weathering the late adolescent identity crisis more privileged women often play out in college.
Many women said their families were initially horrified by their decision to enlist, but have come to accept it.
"My mother cried, my family said, 'You can do better than that' and my friends freak out," recalled Sgt, Sharon Calabrisi, 25, of Danville, Va., who enlisted in 1977. "But now when I go home I'm sort of a hometown" hero."
Calabrisi, a former Army wife, said she joined because, "I was divorced and living at home in a small town. My parents were treating me like I was 16, I didn't have enough money to finish college and I really didn't know what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be."
Susan Moore, 27, the oldest of 17 children of a cab driver, enlisted in September after being laid off as an assembly line worker at a Uniroyal plant in her hometown of Thomson, Ga. Like nearly a third of the women in the Army, Moore is black.
"I wanted to learn something besides factory work," said Moore, who is separated from her husband and supports and eight-year-old daughter who lives with relatives back in Thomson. "In the Army you learn how to do things on your own, you learn how to appreciate yourself. I wanted to be an electronics specialist but there were no openings for that when I joined so I became a chaplain's assistant."
For Pvt. Dot Kent, 19, the daughter of retired Army sergeant, "the Army life was home." Kent enlisted two weeks after graduating from high school in Blue Hills Summit, Pa., a town of 3,000 in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains.
"I knew no matter where I went in the Army it's going to be pretty much the same," said Kent, a court reporter who said she enlisted because "I wanted to be a legal secretary but I had no experience and no one else would give me a job."
Kent, like more than two-thirds of the women at Fort Benning and throughout the Army, works at a traditionally female task.Army officials say they want to attract more women into nontraditional jobs like mechanic or parachute rigger but that many women do not want them.
Acting assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs William Clark said in a recent interview that women are reluctant to take on such jobs because they fear it will be harder for them to get similar employment once they have returned to the civilian world.
But another high-ranking Army official who did not want to be named offered a different explanation.
"If I'm an 18-year-old girl doing something society still views as essentially weird, like joining the Army, I'm going to be more acceptable if I sit in a nice warm office in a clean uniform and drink coffee and flirt with the colonel, not put on baggy fatigues, get covered with grease working in a cold garage and getting hassled by guys who don't want me there."
Some women say they don't mind getting grimy.
"Grease washes off," said helicopter mechanic Sgt. Sheri L. Barkley, "but I have to maintain a certain amount of my fenininity by taking bubble baths and painting my toenails."
Barkley, 20, enlisted in 1977 after graduating from high school in rural upstate New York because "I wanted to see what was out there. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a veterinarian but I didn't know what else I wanted to do, so when I was at the recruiters and saw they needed helicopter mechanics I thought 'What the hell?'"
Barkley, who services Huey helicopters, described rapport in her 182-member company as good. "We all have to depend on each other and since I proved to the guys that I'm just as good as they are, they look out for me," said Barkley, who plans to enroll in preveterinary courses at Conrell University next year after her hitch is up.
Capt. Shirley Wilson, the lone female instructor in the Army's infantry school, agrees with Barkley that women must work harder and frequently outperform their male colleagues to win even grudging acceptance.
"I'm the token female in this school," said Wilson, as she relaxed after lecturing on personnel policies to an all-male class.
"I'm pro-Army and I like my job," said Wilson, 29, who says she plans to make the Army a career "as long as I continue to like it."
"My whole purpose in this school is to leave an impression that female soldiers have a place in the Army and don't require special favors. My main motivation is to be a credit to female soldiers," Wilson said.
But many women find Benning's overwhelmingly male atmosphere more than they can handle. Sexual harassment and discrimination ranging from verbal abuse to physical attacks by male soldiers is one of the principal reasons women drop out of the military, according to Army spokesmen.
Nearly all of the 15 enlisted and officer women interviewed complained that harassment is commonplace and often goes unpunished.
"Since I joined the Army I've become really nervous and so self-conscious that I'm scared of most men except for my husband," said Sgt. Debbie McCormick, 24, who is quitting the Army next month to see out her first pregnancy in civilian surroundings.
"The men here constantly proposition you, make remarks, tell you women don't belong," said McCormick, a military interrogator who enlisted at 19 because she could not otherwise afford to finish college.
McCormick said that a male soldier who leaped on her while she was asleep in a dayroom and began fondling her was merely barred from her barracks as punishment.
"We are expected to overlook the fact that the men are [harassing] us," said McCormick. "There's this attitude that they're just men. At first I thought about making the Army a career, but I'm glad I'm getting out."