Three things came as huge surprises about the Novato resident, Jane Parkhurst, known worldwide as G.I Jane. First, she’s only 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds. “Size has nothing to do with anything,” she asserts, then laughs: “Mighty things come in small packages.”
The second surprise is that she joined the Army when she was already in her 30s. Getting in narrowly under the cut-off age of 32, Jane left her job as a small town police officer in 1990, at the start of Operation Desert Storm. The male-only military occupational skills training she underwent, as depicted in the ’97 film starring Demi Moore, came four years later when she was 35 years old. She was the first woman to complete the training.
Parkhurst says the military higher-ups who asked her to volunteer for the assignment didn’t even think of her age at the time.
"I was getting high scores in physical tests, had good command presence, good evaluations and showed very good leadership in my unit,” she says. Jutting out her elbow as she raises her hand high, as if of its own volition, she laughs and says, “I also had this thing in my shoulder where I kept volunteering.”
So not only was she the first and only woman in her military occupational skills training, she was also the oldest person by almost a decade.
The third surprise is the biggest yet: The movie was already made before Parkhurst knew anything about it. Yet it was clearly inspired by her story and acknowledged as so by the Army after the fact.
With a shrug, she say, “You can’t sue the Army.”
According to Parkhurst, 80 percent of the film is “right on,” down to things she said and photographs from her file. There was no use of double standards in her training, and the scene in which she shaves her head in an empty barbershop is accurate.
OK, so I ask her if the Master Chief (played by Viggo Mortensen in the film) really quoted D.H. Lawrence. I’m referring to the poem “Self Pity,” referred to both in the beginning and at end of the film:
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.
Yes, she heard that one, she tells me. “We really like it (poetry) in the military," she says. "Sometimes poetry, sometimes historical quotes — it soothes us. A lot of officers from West Point are taught English lit and they quote a lot of poetry. People actually learn better if they listen to inspirational type things rather than a lecture.”
(Jane, who grew up in the '60s and 70s with undiagnosed dyslexia, says she learned how to compensate early for her weaknesses, including the learning disability as well as her small size.)
The Master Chief giving her the book at the end with his war medal was “pure Hollywood” she tells me, as was another 20 percent of the movie, including her unit being diverted from training to do an extraction in Libya.
As she nestles in the over-stuffed leather chair near a large picture window overlooking open space in her rustic, hillside Atherton home, Parkhurst seems comfortable in her skin and I ask her if that’s indeed true. She nods and smiles. Remembering all the one-armed push-ups and brutal physical challenges in the movie, I ask her how she felt about her body during that training. Were you punishing it? A friend to it? What?
“Well, I would think, ‘Don’t give up now,' she says and laughs, “and I used to say I’m always praying my warranty won’t expire yet.”
Parkhurst's fitness score when she went into the Army was 290 (300 is a perfect score). She was always in the highest 10 percent of fitness standards in the military and later received a commendation for keeping her unit at the highest level of fitness.
“I make it a game even now," she says. "Every time after I use the bathroom, I wash my hands, and do 25 quick push-ups against the sink."
The lifelong elite athlete is now 53. Married to Doug Parkhurst for over two decades, the couple moved from Mill Valley to Novato several years ago “after seeing American flags on the streets,” as Doug Parkhurst says.
“The Army has been exceptionally good for me in so many ways,” Jane Parkhurst says. “I never push it on anybody, because it’s not for everybody. Jobwise, they train you — I could be a surgical technician in any hospital, a paramedic. I’m a weapons expert. It gives you three squares (meals), a roof over your head, stability, medical and dental.” She flashes a big smile of perfect teeth.
She uses the words guts and tenaciousness several times during our conversation, making it obvious that they are big in her vocabulary and her life. And that's not a big surprise.
Happy Veterans Day to all our troops!