FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- Deep in the woods, mosquitoes whine, flies buzz, and thick brown spiders dart from under one fallen leaf to the next, trying to evade the nearly 100-degree heat.
On her elbows and knees, Army Capt. Aston Armstrong crawls to the top of the hill, peers through the brush and spots the objective: an enemy airfield. The blond platoon leader devises a plan for her 33-member team to destroy the airfield by blowing a 20-foot crater in it.
She jogs back to her team and huddles with the platoon sergeant and three squad leaders. The men lean in as she whispers orders: They will have to pass her commands to the rest of the team, who are on watch to avoid ambush.
Leaves crunch under their boots as they creep into position. Sweat drips from their helmets as they set the charges.
"Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!" Capt. Armstrong yells just before an explosion shoots a cloud of white dust into the air.
The mock-combat mission is a success on Day 24 of the Sapper Leader Course at the Army Egineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where soldiers who rig explosives, detect mines and set up firing systems come to train and push themselves to their physical and mental limits.
Capt. Armstrong is one of only a few women to undertake the sapper course since the Army in mid-May allowed female soldiers to serve in combat support jobs below the brigade level, placing women closer to the battlefield though still barring them from combat.
Band of brothers and sisters
Nine times each year, the best young combat engineers and soldiers are selected by their commands to attend the 28-day Sapper Leader Course, widely regarded as one of the Army's toughest schools. Since 1985, 6,246 engineers have graduated from the course, but only about half of the 40 or so students in each class ever graduate.
Many who have completed both sapper and ranger training say sapper is tougher because of the course's compressed time frame, number of subjects studied and grueling schedule. And there is no separation of the sexes in sapper school: Men and women work, eat, sleep and bathe in the same facilities, though not always at the same time.
Still barred from ranger training, women have attended sapper training since 1999 -- and only 47 have graduated the course.
Capt. Armstrong and Capt. Stephanie Godman were determined to become No. 48 and No. 49.
Of 36 engineers taking the course in June, three had dropped out, including one woman.
At 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds, Capt. Armstrong, 26, is a West Point graduate who had considered becoming an orthopedic surgeon before falling in love with the idea of being an Army engineer. She wanted to attend sapper school to prove to herself that she could do exactly what the guys do, and prove that she is a capable leader.
"I hate riding the whole ‘women train,' but I do think that by having more females out there that do have sapper [badges], it does show some of the younger ones that you can do it, you can do what the guys do, and don't let anyone tell you that you can't," she said.
Capt. Godman, 26, has always considered herself something of a tomboy since playing with her brother and other boys in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Influenced by a cousin who had joined the Army and her brother, who had become a National Guardsman, she began her military career as a musician before switching to the more "fun" job of Army engineer.
"Growing up with my brother, I was one of the guys. So it made it easier for me to come here and just be one of the guys since I've always been that way," said Capt. Godman, who is 5-feet-4 and 122 pounds.
Capts. Armstrong and Godman helped motivate each other through the course.The two women met before while taking the sapper course for the first time: Capt. Godman dropped out because of an injury. Capt. Armstrong finished, but didn't earn a badge. When Capt. Armstrong decided to try it again in June, she contacted Capt. Godman and encouraged her to come back.
In the field
During the first two weeks of sapper training, students undergo rigorous daily physical training and study first aid, navigation, demolition, air and water operations, mountaineering, weapons and land mines.
Along with taking written tests, they make and detonate explosives, rappel off a mountain carrying a person on their backs, jump from a helicopter into a lake with their rucksacks and swim to shore, and use rope to climb just about everything -- including another rope.
The second phase of training puts them in the field, where they cover patrolling techniques and take turns leading raids and missions that include urban operations, reconnaissance, and raid and ambush tactics.
During this portion, the students spend 10 days and nine nights in the field, regardless of heat, rain or snow. It was now Day Eight, and two days earlier, they learned how to kill animals with their bare hands in order to survive.
"Everyone was looking to us for us to faint or pass out at the sight of the blood, but we were just sitting there smiling," Capt. Armstrong said. "The rabbit's not bad. … The chicken is disgusting, because once you rip its head off, the nerves twitch really bad, and the blood just kind of goes everywhere."
As much as the two women tried to blend in with men who were twice their size, there were certain challenges to being a woman -- going to the bathroom in the field being one of them.
"The guys will just take two steps and just [urinate] in the woods. But as a female, you have to wander off deep into the woods so nobody can see you. Plus, there's like 31 guys and two females, so chances are, everybody's trying to use the wood line at the same time, so you have to go even further," Capt. Armstrong said.
Back at their barracks at Fort Leonard Wood, the male students share one bathroom, while the women share a bathroom with the cadre of teachers grading the class. A red, double-sided plastic sign on the door identifies the bathroom occupant. One side reads "Cadre," the other "Female."
Another issue, the menstrual cycle.
"I can't say it's tougher to be a female. I'm pretty sure if you threw in some cramps towards a guy, he wouldn't handle it the same way as a female would. We just have to take care of ourselves differently. So that was a challenge. Other than that, I don't think there's any difference between me and the rest of the guys. I'm just a smaller one," Capt. Godman said with a laugh.
Capt. Godman said all of the students carried little mirrors with them in the field, but for a few days, she purposely avoided looking into hers. When she did, she said, she was shocked that her male classmates could keep a straight face while talking to her.
"I wasn't the only one trying to groom my fingernails and look at my eyebrows," she said, laughing. "Vanity just goes away. You throw on the uniform, and suddenly you're willing to crawl in the dirt, have spiders crawl across you, sleep in the dirt, do anything really, just -- you're on a mission. You don't think about, ‘Oh what does my hair look like?'"
Sleeping in the same area wasn't much of an issue. In the field, the women slept on the ground along with the men. Back at the base, they slept in huge barracks with concrete floors with rows of metal-frame beds on each side of a central aisle. The women slept at the far end, facing each other across the aisle, and men slept to their right and to their left.
In the morning, everyone changed into their uniforms, the men not thinking twice about tearing off their shirts. The women had to be a little more discreet, but no one seemed to care much there that women were present.
Capt. Armstrong said, for some of the male combat engineers, it was their first time working closely with a woman in their profession.
"I'm used to having to prove myself and I'm completely fine with that. I think it's always better when you get respect you deserve," she said. "They just saw me as a female, possibly a weak link, and when I proved that I wasn't, it made our bond even stronger as a team."
Sgt. 1st Class Johnathan Guerrero said Capt. Armstrong was a great "battle buddy," a classmate that each student partners with throughout the course.
"I told her the other day, I'd go to war with her. Just from her true grit, and her pride and honor, and knowing that she wanted to succeed and reach that goal," he said.
Sgt. Guerrero said he's had a female battle buddy before -- and ended up marrying her.
"I met her downrange, and we hated each other. No lie. And then we had to work together. We were forced to work together because of a mission. … She hated me, thought I was loud and obnoxious, and I thought she was stuck up, and I guess it grew from there," he said with a chuckle.
He added that his wife didn't mind him having a female battle buddy.
"She understands how I am as a soldier. I take it very, very seriously. I would never jeopardize fraternization or jeopardize the mission over a dumb feeling. Especially knowing that my wife is at home. My son is at home. To throw that all away for a happy night, it's not worth it," the sergeant said.
Capt. Godman's battle buddy, National Guard Staff Sgt. Anthony Hughes acknowledged that the men watched the women at first, but the women proved themselves.
"They're beasts. I can leave this course and say, ‘Hey, a woman can do any course that's out there in the military,'" said Sgt. Hughes, a married father of two from Somerset, Ky.
"You're hurting. And you look at them, and they're hurting. And you know, you want to try and help them, and they're just like, ‘No, I got this.' And they keep pushing on. That motivates me, too. If she's going to push through it, then I'm going to push through it."
Pushing through sometimes was particularly difficult.
The first time she took the course, Capt. Godman's back began spasming during a 12-mile march with full rucksacks easily weighing more than 70 pounds, more than half of her body weight. On the first of the 10 days in the field, she volunteered to carry the M240 machine gun -- the platoon's heaviest gun, at 27 pounds.
"The thing's just as long as I am tall," she said.
And there were times, Capt. Godman acknowledged, when she did allow the guys to help her out. But it wasn't just her -- they all helped one another.
The most important skills in the course had to do with mental strength, not physical strength, Sgt. Hughes said.
"You have to be tough, so when the suck factor is really high, you don't quit," he said.