WEST POINT, N.Y. – Army cadets Kiana Stewart and DeAdre Harvey squared off in a boxing ring at the U.S. Military Academy this month, circling each other with their gloves up. Watching classmates already had suffered bloody noses, but the women stayed aggressive, bouncing on the balls of their feet while delivering the occasional jab.
The female cadets are part of a first at West Point: women who must box. Beginning this fall, West Point officials shifted from banning female students from taking the course to requiring it for all approximately 1,000 students in the Class of 2020. The move follows the Pentagon's historic decision last year to fully integrate women into all combat roles for the first time, and allowing women to box marked the fall of one of the last barriers to women being allowed to do anything they are qualified to in the U.S. military.
Female cadets said they heard about the decision to mandate boxing as they were preparing to arrive on campus this summer, and were surprised.
"At first I was kind of upset, but now I'm getting into it," Harvey said, after the metallic clang of a bell marked the end of her match with Stewart. "Hitting is not something I want to do necessarily, hand-to-hand, like, if I don't have to."
She added: "In boxing, you have to hit them while looking at them."
A year ago, West Point faced scrutiny about how many concussions cadets had suffered, particularly in boxing class. The New York Times reported that nearly 1 in 5 concussions at West Point occurred during boxing class, and that senior Army officials had discussed for months how to deflect attention from the issue before finally releasing the data.
Army officials acknowledge there is an ongoing discussion about whether boxing should continue in service academies. But, they say, that's a separate debate than whether female cadets should be treated the same as male students and be required to take the same classes, including boxing. The sport, academy officials say, teaches leadership by testing how cadets react while they are under attack.
Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, who took over as West Point's first female commandant of cadets in January, said that when she was a cadet in the late 1980s, she had a hard time understanding why she wasn't boxing and her male classmates were. The course this year incorporates graded two-minute bouts in which women face women, and controlled sparring in which men and women can be matched up against each other.
"The issue is men and women doing the same thing," Holland said. "Now, whether boxing should be a requirement for anybody is a different discussion."
In a boxing class this month, instructors guided students through a series of punches and sparring matches, with students matched up with someone their own size. They wore black T-shirts and shorts, matching protective headgear and oversized boxing gloves designed to cushion the impact of blows to the head more than those professionals wear.
Capt. Juten Richard, a 2006 West Point graduate who now teaches boxing, bounced around the room, shouting both encouragement and corrections. The burly infantry officer also stressed the need to watch for telltale signs of concussion, such as the pupil of one eye being more dilated than the other.
"If they can't stand of their own free accord, we're going to stop it," Richard told the class, as he stood in a blue boxing ring with red, white and blue ropes. "And of course, if there's fluid coming from some place other than a bloody nose or a bloody lip, I need to know. Eyes and ears, those are of concern."
Statistics released by West Point show that cadets have suffered 185 concussions in boxing class over the past five full school years, accounting for slightly more than half of all 355 concussions recorded in physical-education classes in that time frame.
But the total number of concussions and the number of boxing-related ones have declined several years in a row. Last year, there were 38 total concussions, including 20 reported among the 948 cadets who took the boxing class. The number of boxing concussions peaked in 2011-2012, when 68 were reported among 1,022 students. That year, boxing concussions accounted for about three-quarters of all those reported in West Point physical-education classes.
Adding women to the mix may complicate efforts to continue reducing concussions at West Point. Several medicalstudies suggest that young women are significantly more likely to sustain concussions than men.
Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the superintendent and top military officer at West Point, said the academy's boxing program has become increasingly conservative in how it handles suspected concussions, keeping cadets away from boxing until they make a full recovery. That follows warnings issued by medical officials, including some within the Army, that suffering additional concussions before a first one has healed can do serious damage to the brain.
Caslen said he was approached last spring at the 40th anniversary celebration of female cadets attending West Point and asked by alumni to review the ban on women taking the boxing class. After receiving approval from the Army leadership at the Pentagon, he did so because he sees boxing as a way to teach future officers how to lead in trying situations.
"Some people would say, 'Well, can you teach cadets those skills – that tenacity and resilience – through other programs and other mechanisms?'" Caslen said. "Yes, you can. But boxing becomes the . . . one and only event for all cadets that pits one cadet against another in full-body contact."
That doesn't rattle Stewart, a first-year cadet who played water polo and basketball while in high school in Hawaii. Upperclassmen have stopped her to ask about the experience, which she said was initially both "scary" and "pretty cool" to her. She's already had her nose bloodied at least once but blamed herself with a laugh.
"It's because I put my hands down too early," she said. "I thought he blew the whistle and I got clocked in the face, and that was just dumb on my part. It definitely teaches you to be on guard."