It’s four in the morning at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Soon Núñez will board a C-130 transport plane for her first jump. The sergeant running alongside her spits out a few choice expletives, barking that his dead grandmother could run faster than she does.
“So that was motivational,” Núñez says later, laughing about it back at Middlebury. “I just kept telling myself that I’ve made it this far. You can’t give up now.”
Emily Núñez was born at West Point. Her father, an Army colonel (now retired), currently serves as a provincial action officer for the U.S. Department of State, in Iraq, and her uncle was an astronaut who made three NASA shuttle flights during his career as a Marine Corps colonel. She has lived on Army bases (Fort Drum, Fort Leavenworth) her whole life and now considers Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the site of the U.S. Army War College, her home.
Núñez is fluent in Spanish and French, and she just started her third foreign language, Portuguese, this fall. Though slight of frame—she stands just five foot three—Núñez can do 85 push-ups in two minutes and shouts commands like a drill sergeant.
Each week, during the academic year, the international studies major changes into an Army combat uniform and drives to Burlington for a 300-level military science class, Leading and Training Small Organizations, part of her commitment to the Green Mountain Battalion, the Army ROTC unit based at the University of Vermont.
It’s a short walk from her room in Munford to her car parked behind the Mahaney Center for the Arts, but last year she lived in Pearsons Hall and started her ROTC commute by trekking across campus before driving up to Burlington. In uniform with her hair in a bun and an Army patrol cap on her head, she got some unusual looks from her fellow students. “I was usually in a hurry,” Núñez recalls, “so most people wouldn’t stop to ask what’s this woman in an Army uniform doing here, but I am sure that some of them thought I was going to the CFA to audition for a play.”
It was hardly acting this summer when Núñez reported to Jump School at Fort Benning. She was one of only 30 women among the original cadre of 600 soldiers in Bravo Company, which consisted of cadets, enlisted personnel, and officers from all four branches of the military. Their common goal: to complete the Army’s basic airborne course, earn their silver wings, and become “airborne qualified.” Only 480 soldiers in Núñez’s company got their wings. Some were sent home for failing to keep up with the physical demands. Others were eliminated for seemingly minor infractions, such as having Skittles in their pockets. As Núñez wrote in an e-mail after the first week, “The environment here is very structured, and it is easy to get kicked out. Out of the 600 students that started, only 520 remain.”
During the first week of Jump School, students are taught how to wear the parachute harness and how to use training apparatus, such as the mock door (for learning how to exit an aircraft), the parachute-landing-fall platform, and the 34-foot tower that helps simulate the physical sensation of an actual jump. The second week reinforces the safety measures learned during the first week (feet and knees together; tuck your chin) and culminates in parachute jumps from Fort Benning’s famed 250-foot tower.
During week three, students make five qualifying jumps from a C-130, at 1,250 feet. For Núñez, this meant three Hollywood jumps, so called because they are taken with a parachute and reserve chute, but no combat gear; one night jump; and one jump wearing 90 pounds of combat gear. The school concludes with a graduation ceremony during which the airborne-qualified men and women—buck privates and full-bird colonels alike—receive their wings.
“We exchanged long goodbyes and telephone numbers,” Núñez mused. “You develop a special bond with people when you jump out of an airplane together, and some members of Bravo Company would soon be deployed to Afghanistan.”
Prior to Jump School, Núñez attended the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC. Núñez was assigned to a platoon of cadets from the Dominican Republic and the U.S. and spent her days immersed in courses—all taught in Spanish by faculty from Latin America—about human rights, international law, ethics, democracy, and peacekeeping.
During the first week of the three-week school, a male Dominican cadet served as platoon sergeant for the unit of 25 Dominican and 15 American cadets. Núñez was placed in charge the second week. Immediately there was a change in behavior.
“We had to be at formation every morning at 6 a.m., and no one had been late up to this point,” Núñez relates. “Everyone had been doing what they were supposed to do. But on my first morning in charge, it was 6 a.m., and we were missing 10 male Dominicans. Finally, at 6:10 they started arriving, and so I asked them in Spanish, ‘Where were you?’ and they gave me some excuses.”
When Núñez gets to this part of the story, her shoulders square and her voice stiffens. “So I told them, ‘Just because I am a female doesn’t mean that you can disrespect me and disrespect the rest of the platoon by showing up late.’ But they didn’t really seem to care, especially this one Dominican whose father was pretty high up in the military, so I told them all to get down and give me 30 push-ups. They looked at me like I was crazy because in their culture no woman has ever given them an order like that before.
“After that, I could see a bit of a change among the Dominicans. But I saw that dynamic more than once. . . . I was called la mujer, the woman, instead of Cadet Núñez. That was really offensive to me as a woman in the United States Army. You just don’t do that to your fellow soldier. So I pulled him aside and explained it to him.
I really think he got the point.”
Núñez originally thought she might pursue a career in military intelligence, but now she’s looking into law school and the Army’s Judge Advocate Generals Corps.
“Lots of people have the wrong perception of the Army. They think it’s all about the infantry . . . But to me, the Army is a group of really smart people committed to working together to achieve a goal.”
To illustrate her point, the 20-year-old tells this story: Last spring she was nominated for a Public Service Leadership Award at Middlebury. Her commanding officer, Lt. Col. Michael Palaza, came down from Burlington to attend the reception with her. They were sitting together, both in dress uniform, as the achievements of some of the other students were read aloud. One was helping refugees in Africa. Another was rebuilding homes in New Orleans. Some were raising awareness about global health. That’s when Palaza turned to Núñez and whispered, “That’s what we do in the Army, too.”