The Daily
August 1996

A woman of incongruities: sorority girl, fisheries major, ROTC cadet

This article won a first place award for In-depth reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, West Coast Division.

The cover photo, taken by the author, won a third place award in Feature Photography from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association Golden Circle.

In the middle of the battlefield, Nicole Zinc is fighting a private war with her glasses. They slip down her button nose, greased with sweat and mud, for the seventh or eighth time. A desperate dirty hand sneaks from her M-16 rifle stock to balance them. She crawls on. Elbows, belly, knees and boots pushing through the soft soil that cakes her glasses, smears her face, muffles her cries of frustration.

Nicole discards her glasses and pushes on. Her face, pressed low to the ground, grows flushed. Her eyes pucker and squint, trying to focus through the haze of flares. Violet, white, emerald smoke pours over the shifting bodies in the mud as each bellowing army cadet works down the trench.

Nicole is one of approximately 45 women in the 300-cadet regiment that trained at Fort Lewis in Tacoma last summer. The UW senior is sorely wishing for her contact lenses as she blindly snakes across the soupy earth. Yet her enthusiasm bubbles into everything she undertakes – even being muddy.

"I was a priss in high school," she says with a self-deprecating laugh. "I wish my family and friends could see me now – they'd really be surprised."

The once-prim Nicole wears fatigues, helmet and boots. She bares her teeth when her bayonet spears a fat, black tire strip. Her legs dangle over 15-foot log walls despite her fear of heights. She rappels, slides down a 60-foot tower into the water and lobs fake grenades at bunkers.

And she isn't just Nicole Diane Zink anymore. Her Alpha Chi Omega sorority sisters dubbed her the "green machine" because of her uniforms. Her sergeant calls her "the Husky warrior". She also answers to "Tankergirl" since she was the only woman to attend a tour of tank facilities with about 50 men.

She says no other women bothered as they aren't allowed into combat, where tanks are deployed. But Nicole went anyway. "I experienced being a gunner and driver." She grins. "It was fun."

Nicole is casual about bucking the current, which is unsurprising, given her history. Her life is a long string of seeming contradictions, incongruities: prim high school student, muddy warrior, blonde sorority girl, spectacled fisheries major, tank aficionado, concerned volunteer, teasing cadet, loving daughter. Yet somehow she draws it all together.

"Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, like there's too much on the burner," Nicole says. But most of the time her varied interests add to her life, rather that detract. "I love going from the sorority to fisheries. There are little bits of me in each character."

She says learning to be a female soldier was the hardest lesson of her college years. "My role models in ROTC were mainly men, since I was exposed to few female officers. So I tried to draw off my experiences with male superiors – tough male infantrymen.

"Finally my captain at camp sat me down and said, 'You can be all woman and all officer. You have to find a leadership style of your own. If you act like a man, you come off looking like a bitch instead of a strong-willed woman'."

The hour-long discussion spurred Nicole to look for a role-model within herself. "It helped balance my other interests. I can take from my experiences at the sorority and apply that to being an officer," she says. "There's a lot of similarities – both involve getting along with people you wouldn't ordinarily be friends with, living together, being a team, leading and being led."

Nicole found a more empathetic, more mellow way of communicating worked better, especially with younger ROTC students. "Sometimes rather than yelling and getting in their faces, I would just talk," she says. "It was easier to get them to learn."

She hopes these new skills will ease the transition from student to officer. She will be commissioned as a second lieutenant on August 17 and will join the Engineer Corps. "I'm excited to continue my work in environmental science," Nicole says. "The army has conservation and restoration programs where my fisheries degree could be put to good use.

"Working with men unaccustomed to female officers can be a big challenge, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to come in with a good attitude and set my standards up front," she explains.

She does not know what to expect – whether the 'old school thinking' about women in the military will interfere with her new job – but she's prepared for the most severe situation. "Most of the time people are supportive, but sometimes it's hard to accept a female might be better at a 'male' role."

It hasn't been a problem in ROTC, where Nicole rose to a leadership position evaluating and teaching younger students. As she packs to leave Fort Lewis, the affection and respect of the other cadets are obvious.

They are worn around the edges from six weeks of intensive training. They have grubbed in the dirt, eaten innumerable pouches of dried rations, saluted, marched and mopped latrines. A certain giddiness now overtakes exhaustion in their faces.

An officer stands in the bathroom doorway roaring, "Be out in ten minutes, ladies! And this place better be spotless!" The other women preen in front of the mirror. Eye shadow, mascara emerge from cosmetic pouches. Bright skirts twirl in the afternoon sunlight. The women break out of their camouflage cocoons. Except Nicole. She walks among them, still in her jungle suit and cap, embracing friends and exchanging phone numbers.

As she begins the final round of goodbyes, her grandfather pulls our a camera. Instantly a cloud of men descend on Nicole.

"I'm gonna miss my little sis," says one, giving her an affectionate head 'noogie'. The men thump her shoulders and hug her. They form a ring around her wide smile, ignoring the tight shirts and sexy fabrics of the other women. "It's our Tankergirl!" one cries. "No, it's our Supergirl!" another retorts.

But Nicole disagrees. She says her accomplishments in many spheres are all part of being a woman. "Women in general are expected to be many things: mothers, wives, part of the workforce. They may not realise it, but they juggle a lot.

"If a man comes home from a good job, cooks dinner, takes care of the kids, spends time with his spouse – he's a hero. If a woman does that, it's normal.

"I'm not being extraordinary. I'm just being a woman."

"Finally my captain
said, 'You can be all
woman and all officer.
If you act like a man,
you come off looking
like a bitch instead of
a strong-willed woman'.

"If a man comes
home from a good
job, cooks dinner,
takes care of the
kids, spends time
with his spouse –
he's a hero.
If a woman does
that, it's normal.

"I'm not being
I'm just being
a woman."

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