FORT JACKSON, S.C. – Few women make it into the ranks of the Army's top drill sergeants, even fewer when they face the challenge of being a single parent. But there they are, running fresh recruits through the grueling boot camp that welcomes every new soldier.
To juggle childrearing with a job that features 18-hour days and six-day weeks, the women take different paths: One sent her two daughters to live with relatives in Tennessee, one drops her son and daughter at an Army-run day care center at 4:30 a.m., while a third woman's own mother moved from Texas to care for her 7-year-old granddaughter.
"You just have to build a big extended family," said Drill Sgt. Esasha LeBlanc, a 10-year-Army veteran with a 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. "It's like being sent to war."
The 30-year-old LeBlanc is one of 74 female drill sergeants at Fort Jackson who are single parents, out of the 207 women holding the job at the training post this summer. By contrast, 39 of 523 male drill sergeants are single parents, Army officials said.
The number of women in the ranks has increased since basic combat training for both men and women was more widely introduced in 1994. Male and female drill sergeants train both sexes in combined units during the 10-week boot camp that all new recruits go through.
Fort Jackson trains half the Army's male soldiers and more than 60 percent of its female soldiers every year. Altogether, 60,000 soldiers train here every year to fill the Army's ranks of 570,000 men and women.
Fort Jackson began training women to become drill sergeants in 1972, but they only trained other women until 1977. When the draft ended in 1973, women were eligible for only 9 percent of the military's jobs and composed only 2.5 percent of the ranks; now 14 percent are women.
The number of women in the military swelled in the 1990s, when Congress began opening up more military jobs to them. Military leaders now say they can't go to war without them: the Pentagon says about 255,000 women from all military services served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lori Manning, director of the Women in the Military program for the Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington, D.C., said the Army needs female drill sergeants to provide a "strong role model of a successful enlisted woman" for both male and female trainees.
Barracks and sleeping quarters are separated by the sexes, so trainers have to rely on each other to deal with any issues that might come up among their trainees around the clock, Manning said.
Manning, a retired Navy captain, said the presence of male and female trainers helps them "teach each other the ropes" when it comes to dealing with troops of the other sex.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for personnel in the Reagan administration, said the Army represents the nation it protects when it makes accommodations for single parents with children.
"Single parents are a part of our society. The military reflects that and has to deal with it," said Korb, now a defense analyst and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Korb chuckled as he recalled how difficult it was to set up a day care center inside the Pentagon in the 1980s. "You really had some resistance to it then," he said.
He credited the Army's No. 2, Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli, with pushing a family-friendly approach that helps provide the day care centers, transport to on- and off-post schools and kid-friendly programs that help keep single parents like LeBlanc on the job.
During times of war, they all must have detailed plans in place to designate who cares for the children while a parent is deployed, he said.
Drill Sgt. Pamela Bethea, 29, from Memphis, Tenn., has two daughters living with relatives in Memphis.
"We are like family," Bethea said, noting she helps LeBlanc by picking up her children or watching over them during breaks in training.
She misses her own children greatly, she said, but added, "I know they are in good hands. I have no worries about them."
LeBlanc is a staff sergeant and human resource specialist who has served with Special Operations forces. She has 36 parachute jumps with airborne units to her credit and has been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.
Army officials said about 96 percent of its drill instructors have been deployed to combat zones.
At the end of a training day, LeBlanc picks up 10-year-old son Karim and 8-year-old daughter Asiyanna from a Fort Jackson day care center that is open until 9 p.m.
LeBlanc drops her two off at 4:30 a.m. before waking her soldiers at 5:00 a.m. For 10 weeks, the cycle continues for six, sometimes seven days a week. They are promised four days off a cycle, and a 10-day break once a year.
Drill sergeants get preference for slots at the installation's four child care centers and eight child development homes because of their schedules, and costs are on a sliding scale based on income.
LeBlanc said going home to her children is something that helps her deal with the stress of molding civilians into warriors.
"I need my family time to keep me sane," she said. Stealing a quick moment over lunch with her children, they chattered about their morning trip to a water park and play times with other soldiers' children.
"My best friend has a drill sergeant mom!" chirped Asiyanna.
"I want to be a soldier like my mom when I grow up," Karim chimed in, as LeBlanc offered a rueful smile. All too soon, she wrapped them in hugs and yet another goodbye kiss. "Be good!" she admonished them, heading back to her uniformed charges.
All drill sergeants are volunteers, Army officials say, and many take on the grueling hours for several reasons. It can be a means to advance a career and a way to maintain some stability in family life amid repeated war-time deployments. Drill sergeants serve a two-year stint and can volunteer to tack on a third year.
"Drill sergeants have to be committed to their soldiers," said Fort Jackson's top enlisted man, Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Stall, 45. "They have to be inspirational, knowledgeable and flexible. My hat goes off to them."
Drill Sergeant Tiera Sprauve, 26, said she is able to stay at work because her mother, a retired Navy food service operator, decided to move from Texas, quit her job and help care for her 7-year-old granddaughter Deja.
"She's holding my home together. I don't know how I would have done this job without her," Sprauve said.
Sprauve's 49-year-old mother, Gloria, said she wanted her daughter to achieve things in the military that she never could. Women didn't serve aboard ships when she was in the Navy.
"I want her to know that anything is attainable," her mother said. "She got her promotion because she was able to be a drill sergeant."
Sprauve, awaiting final word on her promotion to staff sergeant, said she signed up for a third year of drill sergeant duty because she wants to keep her daughter in the same school near Fort Jackson as long as she can.
"I am really blessed," she said. "I will be in the Army till they force me out."