Army women honor past, look to future

March 29, 2013
Story by Lisa A. Ferdinando
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 28, 2013) -- From the Revolutionary War to today, women have served important roles in the Army. They've made history and blazed a trail for the next generation of women who will serve.
From the nurses, seamstresses and cooks who supported troops during the Revolutionary War, to the women who serve in the Army around the world today, women have played a critical role in America's defense; and their impact is expanding. The service of women in the Army is being honored in March for Women's History Month.
Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson receives her second star from husband Amos, Sept. 29, 2011, at Fort Knox, Ky. Anderson is the first African-American woman in the U.S. Army to obtain the rank of major general(Photo by Sally Harding).​
Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson, Deputy Chief of the Army Reserve, made history when in 2011 she became the Army's first female African-American major general. She credited those who broke barriers in decades past with paving the way forward.
"I thought a lot about people like the Tuskegee Airmen and then all the African-American women who had served before me; first as nurses in World War I and then later in a variety of positions during World War II," Anderson said. "All of them were trailblazers and broke ground for me, so I felt it was my responsibility to continue the good work they had done and try to build on that as much as possible."
Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, director of Army Reserve Human Capital Core Enterprise, also credits trailblazers of the past for opening doors for later generations of women.
"When I think about myself as a role model for others, I know that I stand on the shoulders of many giants; other women who have become general officers and any woman who had enlisted before the times changed," said Smith. "I know they paved a path for me. That's why I take that responsibility so seriously. I think that as a general officer, I am uniquely a role model for women, but I'm also just a Soldier."
Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith represents the Army Reserve during a "Helping A Hero" event for Army Reserve Veteran Spc.Jay Briseno, March 2013, Manassas, Va. (Photo by Master Sgt. Melissa Rolan)​
Her proudest accomplishments in her Army career she said are becoming a jumpmaster and a senior parachutist, and being the first openly gay flag officer.
"I feel like I am a role model for Army values and for personal courage and for integrity," said Smith. "I hope that I give other people courage to live their authentic life, because I think that makes them better Soldiers and better leaders."
Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Broadway was the first female cadet to receive an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps commission from Kansas State University. She entered active duty in 1976 and transferred to the Army Reserve in 1979.
"When I first entered active duty, I had some great coaches and mentors," said Broadway. "Of course at that time, there weren't a lot of female officers who could mentor you. You were perhaps one of only one or two female officers in the organization."
Broadway said she was fortunate nonetheless.
"I had great male supervisors and great male [noncommissioned officers] who helped me, counseled me, pointed me in the right direction, who truly didn't see me as a female second lieutenant," she said. "They saw me as a second lieutenant who just happened to be female. I really had some very positive experiences during those early years."
Broadway said those positive experiences continued after she transferred to the Army Reserve in 1979. She retired in 2011 after 35 years of service.
Col. Aimee Kominiak, the commander of the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade in Fort Lee, Va., was a platoon leader who deployed to Panama with her all-male platoon for Operation Just Cause.
Kominiak earned a combat patch for the deployment. She said senior officers and NCOs would often inquire about where she earned the patch, since they weren't used to seeing women with combat patches.
"It was kind of a paradigm shift because I think the Army and the nation were struggling with this idea of women in combat," said Kominiak. "When combat broke out in Panama, women were already there on the ground. They were in the middle of it, whether the country wanted them to be there or not."
Kominiak later served in the early 1990s in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. During those conflicts, 24,000 women deployed to the desert.
"We had women who died, and we had women who were prisoners of war, and we had women who were injured," she said.
A few years after Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, the Department of Defense issued a directive barring women from direct combat. In January, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rescinded the 1994 memo and now the Army is examining opening up certain jobs to women.
Anderson said the Army benefits from putting women in roles in which they want to serve; so long as they have the necessary skills and physical ability to do the jobs. That includes infantry as well, she said, adding that it is important for an organization to use all the talents of all its people.
"We're all Soldiers, we go through training that prepares us to be a complete Soldier," she said. "We don't just go to training to be a finance person or a signal person. We all learn how to fire our assigned weapon. We're all taught how to work as a member of a team, a squad or a platoon. We might as well not waste that training."
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, a chaplain with the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve, was the first female rabbi in the U.S. military. She is currently the Command Chaplain for the 807th Medical Command, Deployment Support, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"There are more and more women in leadership roles," Koppell said. "I think the Army does a fantastic job of training people with ongoing, continuing education to help people to develop leadership skills to give people opportunities to serve as leaders.
"There are just a lot of very strong, powerful, competent, confident women out there leading the way now," said Koppell.
Women made up 15.7 percent of the total Army in 2012. As of 2012, 95 percent of Army military occupational specialties were open to women.
"I think the role of women in the Army has just gotten better and better because the Army learns more and more all the time," said retired Col. Shelley Richardson.
Richardson was a part of history herself. In 1976, she was in the first class of women admitted into West Point.
"There were people who were certainly on board with the integration and there were also those who weren't sure it was a really good idea, so we got a lot of many different attitudes there," she said. "Probably the best attitudes were [from] those who just treated us as other plebes. That's really all we were hoping for."
She said her overall Army experience was positive and she welcomes the expanding role of women.
"The Army still is going to go through a transition period with the new decisions about women in combat roles," said Richardson. "I really feel that especially in the field that I entered in, logistics, operations and research, women are well-integrated in those fields, and even at West Point, I've gone back and visited and it's just such a difference and women are so well-integrated now. It's just really great to see."
Command Sgt. Maj. Mary Brown has served in a variety of staff and leadership positions, including drill instructor. She advanced through the ranks in the male-dominated 92R Parachute Rigger military occupational specialty, eventually becoming the first female parachute rigger to be promoted to command sergeant major.
"I've always done what I can do to the best of my ability, Brown said. "Whatever opinion you form on me, you form it based on my performance not my gender," said Brown, who is currently the Air Delivery and Field Services Department Sergeant Major at Fort Lee, Va.
"I've given my best. I've never used what my gender is," said Brown. "I'm a Soldier. I've always said that I'm a Soldier first."
Her advice to young Army women: "Be who you are. Don't ever let the gender be the first thing out of your mouth. Be a Soldier first. Be a leader first. Be a follower first. Then everything else with fall in place."
Spc. Taiesa Lashley, 25, is with the 436th Civil Affairs Battalion in Orlando, Fla. Lashley, who was Miss U.S. Paradise World, was also the first U.S. veteran to compete at the Miss World pageant.
"It's an evolving role, women within the military," said Lashley, who served a combat tour in Afghanistan. I have male Soldiers who I don't think treat me any different when it comes to the task at hand or my physical capabilities or anything like that. It's definitely something evolving and I think for the better."
Lashley, who is working towards her Master's Degree and aspires to become an officer, supports opening combat roles to women.
"I do think it's a great thing because women can do anything that men can do," she said. ​
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