As their buddies hoot and holler encouragement, male and female Army recruits at the Army's largest training base grab arms, legs or mid-sections to push, prod and lift one another over a 12-foot wooden wall.
"Hoo-aahh!" the group bellows, as the men and women of one unit finally get over the wall. The exercise is designed to teach trainees trust and confidence in one another, but the young recruits also must be taught where they should - or shouldn't - grab when helping others through the course's many obstacles.Since reports of rape and sexual harassment broke more than a year ago at an Army training base in Aberdeen, Md., the Pentagon has been struggling to respond to criticism its training regimen has been too lax and that mixing men and women in its 1.4 million all-volunteer force has prompted untoward behavior.
An advisory panel headed by former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker has called for separating men and women in the first six weeks of basic training - as the Marine Corps does - and housing men and women in separate buildings during their first two segments of training.
Another report, issued by a panel set up to advise the Pentagon issues involving women, says just the opposite. It argued the current system of "mixed gender" training should continue and even be expanded.
Defense Secretary William Cohen has asked the military services to present their views on the matter by mid-March, after which he will make a decision.
Visits to two of the military's largest training bases reveal a mix of views - trainees think mixing men and women should be the norm; many drill sergeants argue sexual segregation has some merit; while training commanders say segregation wouldn't solve harassment problems, nor prepare trainees for a military that depends heavily on the women, who make up 14 percent of the active duty force.
"We train together, eat together, work together, because we'll go to war together," said Marcus Alfinez, 19, of Brooklyn N.Y., one of the "Black Lions" who'd just helped his male and female counterparts over the wall.
"Confidence, trust, teamwork, that's what it builds," said Jennifer Rhodes, 23, of Louisville, Ky. Queried about the potential for sexual misconduct among recruits, Rhodes says: "We're too tired," pointing to their rigorous 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. schedule.
"No, we're not too tired. We're just not interested. That's not what we're here for," scolds Crystal Dedera, 19, of Independence, Ore.
Halfway across the country at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, trainees echo their Army counterparts.
"You learn to deal with real issues. In the work force, you won't be separated, and that's the reality of it. It's a realistic approach," said Airman Michael Stothers of New York City. The 27-year-old is headed for advanced training as a fire-fighter.
Airman Natasha Hebert of New Orleans said she's never encountered any incidents of sexual harassment, whether by drill sergeants or her male peers.
"I look at the men in my flight (training unit of about 58 airmen) as my brothers. It really helps" to have them around, said Hebert, an 18-year-old headed for training with military police.
"The closest we ever got to one another was folding their T-shirts," said Airman Michele Thomas, 21, of Valdez, Ala. The men polished their boots in return as a team-building exercise, said the former waitress, now in line to enter the health services field.
Even though the Air Force trainees may be together on the training field or obstacle courses, certain distances are mandated - such as males and females keeping six inches apart in the chow line.
Gen. Lloyd Newton, who oversees Air Force training and education, said total separation would "really complicate" matters for a service that has trained men and women together for half its 50-year history.
Newton, a four-star general and the first black member of the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, said the idea just doesn't make sense to him in today's America.
"History shows us that there was no such thing as separate but equal education. The same is true when it comes to training," he said.
Although a report to Defense Secretary William Cohen suggested segregating training would cost little, Newton told Congress it could mean "significant" costs for the Air Force, including adding a new training squadron, and a training group to support it at Lack-land.
Renovation of the barracks was put at $8.5 million, with an additional $5.7 million per year for additional female personnel, utilities, supplies and equipment.
But the drill sergeants who shadow recruits at Fort Jackson from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. say separating the sexes could make the tough weeks of basic training a little easier.
At both the Army and Air Force training bases, female trainees sleep on the top floors of a multilevel barracks building. Guards are posted at the doors to warn of fires, but also to prevent anyone from entering who isn't supposed to be there.
Separate quarters can lead to confusion in communication for mixed-gender squads, and problems for drill sergeants who must repeat messages again and again to units that have training session in their quarters.
Drill Sgt. Carolyn Wilson, 28, of Daytona Beach, Fla., says separating men and women might not be such a bad idea. Her own training was segregated, she says, "and I felt it worked out perfectly."
"Six weeks out of their lives, it wouldn't hurt them," adds Drill Sgt. Keith Craig, 33, of Oldham County, Ky., who works closely with Sgt. Wilson.
"The downside is, public opinion thinks it would set women back 100 years. But the upside - we'd move forward more quickly, and less time would be spent having to deal with gender-related problems, or time consumed with improper associations," added Craig, an 11-year Army veteran.
Both Air Force and Army commanders said they believed adding to the number of female drill sergeants would go a long way toward helping the system accommodate mixed training units.
"I can spot it in a nanosecond, if some woman is trying to be manipulative," said Capt. Danielle DuBose, 40, of Greensboro, N.C., "I see things the men just don't see. . . . They need to double the number of female drill sergeants."
First Sgt. Charles Gipson, a 21-year veteran who oversees drill sergeants, says commanders need to "think of the big picture."
"If you split men and women up here, and then they go out into the units without having learned to work with males and females, how are they going to react then?" the Chicago, Ill., native said.
Typical day for Army recruits
04:30 a.m.: Wake up, personal hygiene, get in formation.
05:00 a.m.: Physical training, muscular development.
06:00 a.m.: Personal hygiene, breakfast.
07:00 a.m.: Barracks cleanup.
07:30 a.m.-16:00: Grenade throwing, lunch, grenade throwing.
16:30 p.m.-18:00: Dinner.
18:00-19:00: Commanders' hour (training, planning for next day).
19:00-20:00 : Cadre hour, meet with drill sergeants, first sergeants.
20:00-21:00: Personal hour (letter writing, boot polishing).
21:00: Lights out.