March is the traditional month for celebrating women's history. April 2001, however, is when 19-year-old Jennifer Donaldson made some history of her own.
She was nicknamed "G.I. Jane" at Camp Robinson in central Arkansas, near Little Rock. That's where the senior airman from the Illinois Air National Guard became the first woman to complete the only U.S. military sniper school open to females. That's where she did for real what Demi Moore portrayed in the 1997 movie about training Navy SEALS.
Technically, Donaldson and seven men on April 14, the Saturday before Easter, graduated from the first counter-sniper program for Air Guard security force personnel conducted by the eight-year-old National Guard Sniper School. It was the first program of its kind for any U.S. Air Force component.
"The Air Force has been the only ground combat force in this country that does not employ snipers and counter-snipers," explained Army Guard Sgt. 1st Class Ben Dolan, a former Marine sniper and the school's chief instructor.
That made Donaldson, a patrol person from the Air Guard's 183rd Fighter Wing in Springfield, Ill., the pilot woman student for the National Guard's pilot training program for security people charged with protecting air bases and airplanes.
"I've admired policemen since I was a little kid," explained the trim Donaldson, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 125 pounds, while wearily picking at her dinner following a long, hot Sunday of outdoor training. "I want to get as much training as I can get. This sounded interesting."
She and her partner, special operations Staff Sgt. Frank Tallman from Kentucky, had found four of five points and were the first team to complete and pass a 2.7-mile land navigation course through thick woods that day. She was steeling herself to do another three-hour course that night.
"I had no idea it would be this hard," said Donaldson after her first week. "I've been in the Guard for a year. I've done basic training and tech school. But I've never seen this kind of physical training. Some of us had to get fit while we were here.
"Yesterday I wanted to go home," she added. "I was so stressed out, and I had no confidence at all."
Donaldson was considerably more upbeat five days later, the day before graduation, after the two tough weeks of training were behind her.
"It's a relief," she said on Good Friday. "I feel that I have really accomplished something. I stuck with it because I wanted to prove to myself I could do it."
The 14 straight days of strenuous physical and mental training is grounded in the idea that the best way to detect a sniper is with another sniper, said Dolan. The counter-sniper students were trained to think like and become snipers -- to deliberately locate and kill another human being without remorse.
Two Air Guard men who have gone to war for this country took top honors. Nebraska Senior Airman John Swanson, a Marine in Southwest Asia during Operation Desert Storm, was the distinguished honor graduate. Tallman, a former Army Ranger who jumped into Panama in December 1989 to help kick off Just Cause against Manuel Noriega, was named Top Gun as the best shooter.
Detecting practice targets as small as a pencil, sketching structures where enemy snipers could be concealed, and memorizing minute details about an enemy unit's size, uniforms and equipment were part of the drill for the students who spent as much time on their stomachs as they did on their feet.
Donaldson was eligible to attend the school because women belong to Air Guard and Air Force security forces, Dolan explained.
That is not the case in the Army and the Marines because snipers are part of those infantry forces, and women can't be in the infantry. Dolan, however, maintains that more women should be trained as snipers.
"Frankly, women are better suited mentally for this job than most men," said Dolan who has learned the sniper craft from the Marines and from the Army and who saw duty as a Marine sniper 10 years ago during the Persian Gulf War.
"A woman is best suited to counter a woman sniper," he added. "That's important because over 50 percent of the countries that have been considered hostile to the United States, including North Vietnam and North Korea, have used women snipers.
"Women can shoot better, by and large, and they're easier to train because they don't have the inflated egos that a lot of men bring to these programs," Dolan said. "Women will ask for help if they need it, and they will tell you what they think."
Dolan has designed the counter-sniper program for Air Guard security people, and he has no reservations about training women who can handle the 15-hour days of running and shooting and camouflage lessons in the woods.
The students had to complete a two-day and night field training exercise at the Arkansas National Guard's Fort Chaffee before they graduated.
"The same standards apply to men and women," Dolan insisted. "This course is designed to test their physical limits and their emotional balance."
Despite Donaldson's concerns, Dolan said, the sniper school's first woman student shot well with her scope-mounted, high-power rifle on the range and was an above average student.
The tests took many forms, Donaldson related. All eight got "smoked" if one made a mistake. They all did grass drills and pushups, low crawled through a large mud puddle, and hung upside down while hugging a tree with their arms and legs because one of them did not handle a rifle properly. No one made that mistake again.
"They tried to teach you to deal with stress," related Donaldson. "I believe it worked. And I feel much better about all of this now that it's over."