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All-female fighting force wins all-around respect

By Yang Wanli | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-31 07:04

All-female fighting force wins all-around respect The members of the only all-woman squad in the People's Liberation Army Special Operations Forces have been praised for their devotion to the cause, as Yang Wanli reports.

Every day at 5:35 am, before most people are awake, Wei Lingli, 20, and her comrades are out of bed. They have just a few minutes to wash and dress before embarking on a 5-kilometer run which they must complete in less than 24 minutes.

All-female fighting force wins all-around respect

Recruits watch as one of their peers practices pullups on an exercise frame. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY 

That's how every training day begins for the women of the 82 Group Army's Special Warfare Brigade, the only all-female squad in the People's Liberation Army Special Operations Forces, founded in March 2013 in Beijing. Most of the members were born after 1990, and they come from all parts of the country.

"We are women, but strong and tough," said Wei, who joined the brigade last year. After a year of training, her weight has risen from 50 kilograms to 55. "My body shape has hardly changed, but I've added more muscle," she said, displaying her strength by holding an 18-kilogram bottle of water in each hand.

Her new-found strength is the result of daily training. The weight of each female soldier's uniform and equipment-a water bottle, medicines, a signal flare, oil and cleaning equipment for firearms, ropes, grenades and maps-is about 10 kg.

When firearms and bullets are added, the figure rises to about 15 kg. The full ensemble is worn during daily route marches, usually of 30 to 40 km.

"Everyone in the brigade is best of the best," said Li Shanshan, the instructor, who joined the team when it was established. She recalled that last year's intake of 16 women-selected from a pool of 100 new soldiers-initially took about 17 minutes to run 3 km.

"After training for three months, more than 80 percent could complete a 3-km run in 14 minutes," she said. In addition to their outstanding physical condition, more than 75 percent of the team are college graduates.

For the brigade's members, combat skills are essential, including parachuting, scuba diving, rappelling and the use of weapons such as pistols, rifles and submachine guns.

"People make jokes sometime, saying no man would dare to marry such 'tough' women," Wei said. "But I think our iron will and brave hearts are our main attributes; we always advance in the face of difficulty."

Best choice

About six months ago, Zhang Yue, 24, celebrated the fourth anniversary of her admission to the elite brigade.

All-female fighting force wins all-around respect

Zhang Yue adjusts her helmet as she prepares for a training session. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY  

Before joining the unit, Zhang worked as a nurse in a military hospital in Hebei province. "To many people, it's a nice job that doesn't include tough training schedules and a harsh environment," she said. "But it wasn't the best choice for me. I wanted to be someone who could fight on the battlefield."

In 2013, Zhang passed the entry exam and was assigned to the brigade's first intake. She was not the only one to talk about pain and injury without complaint.

Jin Xiaohua, 23, was recently diagnosed with three fractures in her right leg, but when she was sent to hospital by her comrades after days in pain, she couldn't remember when or where the fractures occurred.

"It's not a big deal. My father taught me to be strong and optimistic when I was a child," she said. Unlike her peers, who mostly love popular music, Jin's favorite songs are all about the military, and the desire to join the army was rooted in her from childhood. "Every time I saw the national flag-raising ceremony or a military review on TV, I couldn't take my eyes from the screen," she said.

Jin was a junior student at the Shanxi Police College, where she learned unarmed combat and nunchaku martial arts while waiting for the annual army enrollment test. In 2015, she suspended her studies and started the brigade's two-year training program.

Her term of service will end late next month, and she was distraught at not being able to participate in daily training during her last weeks in the army. Instead, she used crutches to move between dormitories, where she helped to clean up and undertake other chores to help her comrades.

"Our friendship is different than in college. We are like family members who share happiness and sorrow. I will miss them all," she said.

All-female fighting force wins all-around respect

A soldier shows off a new dress to her comrades. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY 

"My efforts will never end," she said, explaining that she will return to the police college to complete her studies, and, following graduation, she will take an exam to enroll as a member of a SWAT team: "My ambition is to join the UN Peacekeeping Force and work for justice and a peaceful world."

Hu Chaocheng, 32, the brigade's male commander, said female soldiers are as aggressive and brave as men, even though the conditions are far more challenging for them than for their male peers.

Every summer, China's Special Operations Forces undertake several weeks' training at sea, which is less relaxing than it sounds. According to Hu, the external temperature is usually 50 C, while the water temperature is about 20 C-8 degrees lower than in a swimming pool. Also, the quality of sea water in the training base is much poorer than that in tourist areas.

All soldiers must complete swimming and diving courses. "It's not like a vacation in the Maldives. Each swimming session is 3 km," Hu said. "With the sharp difference between the atmospheric temperature and that of the sea water, the body endures huge pressure."

Li, the instructor, has vivid memories of the first time she led the brigade to a mountainous area in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region for months of outdoor winter training.

"The outside temperature was about -10 C. We traveled for about two days in trains which only had hard seats, and there was no heating system at the training base," she said. "Hot water was limited, so each group of 10 girls shared a small bottle of hot water for drinking."

Hidden lives

Military camp is the breeding ground for the tenacity and courage of the women in the brigade. Their nonmilitary lives are hidden in their lockers, in which each member has a blue box to store personal possessions, from cosmetics to gifts from relatives and close friends.

In each 10-square-meter, six-person dormitory, the blue boxes are the soldiers' only source of privacy. Each locker contains two uniforms and a cap. The items in the small boxes are the only things that distinguish one soldier from another.

"The most relaxing time is laying on the bed with a face mask after training for a whole day," said Zhang, who took her box from the bottom of her locker and showed her personal possessions: a small beauty mirror bearing the handcarved words "Sisterhood never changes" from a friend in her hometown; a dozen handmade name tags from another friend at her home: and a portable table lamp, which she uses when she writes her diary after the 9pm lights-out call. She also had some makeup-lipstick, face powder and eye shadow-but they showed few signs of having been used.

"Training is tough and makeup will quickly be destroyed by our sweat. We just use it at weekends for short daily breaks outside the camp," Zhang said. Only four people can take the break, which lasts from 8 am to 5 pm, at the same time, so we only get to leave the camp about once every two months.

The limited opportunities for leisure mean that those who take the break are always inundated with shopping requests. "The most popular items are snacks and cosmetics," Zhang said. "So, a shopping mall about 3 km away is our usual destination."

The camp is located outside Beijing's Sixth Ring Road, so a round trip to the downtown takes about four hours. According to Li, few members of the brigade have visited Tian'anmen Square; a must-see destination for most Chinese.

"Some soldiers get a chance to see the capital when they finish their term of service and are preparing to leave. But their love of China and its people is stronger than anyone else's," she said.

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