By MICHAEL HILL
WEST POINT, New York (AP) _ With female cadets representing less than one in five cadets at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy is taking steps to boost the number of women arriving here this summer and beyond.
West Point’s new superintendent said the moves _ which include more outreach and the cultivation of competitive candidates _ will help keep the storied academy ahead of the curve now that the Pentagon is lifting restrictions for women in combat jobs.
“We obviously have to increase the female population for a number of reasons. One is because there are more opportunities in the branches for the females,” Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr. said.
Women have been a presence at the nation’s military academies since 1976. Female cadets here can grow their hair longer than the standard military buzz-cut and can wear stud earrings. But they carry the same heavy packs, march the same miles and graduate with the same second lieutenant bars the men here do.
“I carry the heavy weapons whenever we do field training exercises,” said Cadet Austen Boroff, a woman who refuses to be out-soldiered by her male peers. “I’ll take the machine guns, so I’m taking more weight.”
And cadets like Boroff remain in the minority, just as they do in the broader military. The Air Force and Naval academies say their student bodies are about 22 percent female. West Point is at 16 percent, mirroring the gender breakdown in the larger Army.
Caslen, who became superintendent last year, said an increased number of female cadets will do more than serve the Army when thousands of combat positions are slated to open to both sexes by 2016. It will also help integrate women at the academy, he said.
West Point, like the military in general, has taken additional steps to combat sexual harassment and assaults. In one high-profile case, an Army sergeant accused of secretly photographing and videotaping women at West Point pleaded guilty last month in a court-martial.
“My objective is to create the climate, the command climate here at West Point, that not only eliminates harassment and assault, but that will also create the teams and create the climate so that every single person feels that they’re a member of the team,” Caslen said.
West Point has taken a series of subtle steps to increase the percentage of women coming here without lowering admission standards.
The academy has created new recruitment mailings written for girls in their freshman, sophomore and junior years of high school that note female West Point graduates have gone on to become generals, astronauts, executives and government leaders. The letter asks: “Do you have what it takes to follow in their footsteps?”
The mailings will not bear fruit for this year’s incoming class, but director of admissions Col. Deborah McDonald said there has been an increase in the number of female nominees. And the academy has begun targeting top-tier female candidates and guiding them through the demanding application process. They already do that for standout scholars, soldiers, athletes and minorities.
West Point women‘s lacrosse team is moving up to Division I in 2015, which also is expected to draw more interest from top female athletes who now choose other schools.
Caslen said there’s no long-term goal yet for a percentage of female cadets. Also, final numbers on the incoming Class of 2018 won’t be known until the new group arrives for cadet basic training July 2. But West Point, as of this week, has admitted 229 female applicants and as many as 36 other females from the academy’s prep school will be considered.
“I have no concerns at all that we won’t actually move right beyond the 20 percent mark,” McDonald said. “It might even be as high as 22 percent.”
The class coming to West Point this summer will be in the second graduating class in which all branches will be open to women. But female West Point graduates this year can already choose among every Army branch except the infantry and armor. Boroff, for instance, will go into field artillery.
Despite some headline-making cases, Boroff and other cadets said they feel secure at West Point. Cadet Sarah Melville said she is treated no differently than any male cadet and is rarely reminded of her gender.
“Perhaps occasionally, halfway through the school year, you go, `Oh, I’m the only girl in this class. OK, cool,”’ Melville said. “It means nothing.”