During March each year, the Department of Defense and the Army recognize the accomplishments of women in support of military service and more during Women’s History Month.
And at the same time each March at Fort McCoy since 2017, women also have been among the many students successfully training in the Cold-Weather Operations Course (CWOC) on post. CWOC includes enduring 14 days of physical training in the cold and snow of Wisconsin between December and March.
Women are always among the course graduates, and they’ve all done exceptionally well, said CWOC Instructor Hunter Heard, who coordinates training with fellow instructors Manny Ortiz, Brian Semann, and Joe Ernst. All are with contractor Veterans Range Solutions, which works with Fort McCoy’s Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization, and Security to complete the training.
CWOC students complete snowshoe and skiing training at Whitetail Ridge Ski Area and on training areas throughout the post. Overall, students completed nearly 40 kilometers of marches during training, Heard said. They also learn how to pack and use ahkio sleds to carry and move gear, and they practiced extensively in building the Arctic 10-person cold-weather tent as well as improvised shelters.
Course objectives also include focusing on terrain and weather analysis, risk management, developing winter fighting positions, camouflage and concealment in a cold-weather environment, cold-water immersion reaction and treatment, and injury prevention, Heard said. Successfully completing these learning objectives is expected of every student in order to graduate.
Marine Cpl. Nina Lear with the Marine Corps 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company of Camp Lejeune, N.C., who was a student in CWOC class 21-03, said the training made her more skillset for cold-weather operations tremendously better.
“The knowledge you obtain in this course is the best part,” Lear said. “Shelter building instruction (and practice) was also helpful because it shows you what materials are good for keeping you warm. … This course (overall) has helped me improve my outdoor skills and helped me get used to cold weather.”
Lear added that learning about proper wear of cold-weather clothing was also very useful.
“Clothes layering skills are skills I can take back with me and teach other Marines,” Lear said. “I can use that knowledge and other skills and apply them to clothes layering in any other region.”
During class 21-04, Airman 1st Class Jarva Brown with the 164th Security Forces Squadron at Memphis, Tenn., was one of many women attending the course. She said she learned a lot during training.
“This course helped me learn that I can do anything I put my mind to,” Brown said. “I know I can teach the service members back at my home station how to correctly set up a thermal tent, how to prevent frostbite, and how to treat someone with hypothermia.
“I also enjoyed skiing when I finally learned to stop falling,” she said. “The snowshoes also were a big help while rucking in the snow.”
For Airman 1st Class Alexis Edwards, also with the 164th and a class 21-04 student, learning to tie knots and build fires were part of an overall experience that can build on other things.
“I can take a lot of things I learned here and apply them to other skills I know,” Edwards said. “The best part of this course to me was building the shelters. … And in taking back skills, teaching others how to make fires will be among them. … It helps build training for people like me who had never done things like this before.”
Staff Sgt. La’Tericka Brown, also with the 164th at Memphis and a class 21-04 student, said the best part of cold-weather training for her, in addition to gaining better skills, is how the training was done.
“The best part of this course, for me, is where trainees like myself got a chance to be hands-on with what we were being taught,” Staff Sgt. Brown said. “I like that we were able to see how proficient we were in the different areas we were trained.”
The staff sergeant also said Fort McCoy is a great installation to hold this training.
“The terrain is perfect for the training in the winter,” she said. “There was not a time I questioned why the course is held here. The weather and the snow made the course. It gave trainees a real feel of what it would be like to complete missions in a cold-weather operations area.”
The Fort McCoy CWOC training season for 2020-21 ended March 19 with the completion of class 21-05 that also included women as students. Heard said women who have graduated the course have been exceptional in their performance, both in the classroom and in the field.
“As instructors, we treat all of our students as equals, regardless of age, gender, or what branch of service they come from,” Heard said. “Many of the women who come to our course are not enlisted in combat arms military specialties like combat engineer, combat medics, or military police. Many of them come to us from other support specialties, so the ruck marching, snowshoeing, and multinight bivouacing is a new experience for many of them.
“In spite of all that, the female students push just as hard as their male counterparts, and in some cases, even harder,” Heard said. “All of our students carry roughly the same equipment in their rucks out to the field. The only exception being anything extra the student wishes to pack out. On average, our students’ rucks weigh between 40 to 55 pounds. For the females, this weight can be over a third of their bodyweight in some cases, whereas for the average male student this rarely reaches a third of their bodyweight. What this translates into is a more intense physical workload for the females in most cases.
“Also there is the way that our bodies respond to cold weather,” Heard said. “Women are more prone to suffer a cold-weather injury than males. This means that during our colder classes, our female students are at higher risk during the field exercise for cold-weather injuries already, then combine the more intense physical workload, and it makes things even harder for them. So again, even with all those variables, by and large the majority of women we have had come through our course have shown incredible grit, determination, and tenacity.”
Learn more about the Department of Defense observance of Women’s History Month by visiting the spotlight page at https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/womens-history-month.