FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
Lt. Col. Ashley Hartwell let out a joyous gasp as she marveled at a unique display in the National Museum of the United States Army for the first time.
A bright smile beamed across her face as she turned to share her excitement with her husband, Maj. Kristopher Hartwell, and daughter, Grace.
A life-sized model in Hartwell's visage, dressed in an Army combat uniform, stood tall in front of the family.
Symbolic of a female military police officer on high alert in Iraq, Hartwell's display conveys a feeling of tension as she grasps onto her M-249 light machine gun in a low-ready position.
The model, titled "Corporal on Patrol in Ramadi," highlights the growing role of women in combat during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, museum officials said. In 2013, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the ban on women serving in combat arms, creating more opportunities for females throughout the force.
Hartwell, a reservist and former intermediate-level education instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Belvoir, first enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard to obtain her college degree, and a year later signed up for the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. She then served on active duty for 10 years before moving to the Hawaii Guard, and later the Army Reserve.
"While we may join the Army for the benefits, or even for national pride, many of us stay in for the people on our left and right," she said. "There have been many times throughout my career where I am bone tired, dirty, hungry, and miserable, but so were the Soldiers next to me.
"We had 'shared misery,' and we all got through it together, usually with a great story in the end,” she added.
Hartwell's first supervisor also taught her the value of leadership during her initial four-year commitment. The two discussed the significance behind an Army career, to include topics about financial management and retirement.
In turn, the Army has grown to become a large, extended family, Hartwell added.
"I have not always loved the Army … but I am, without a doubt, a stronger and better person for having joined," she said.
While the museum's display is not a direct representation of Hartwell's career, the sweat on the figure’s brow triggered some key memories, she said.
Hartwell served two tours in Iraq. As a Captain she worked closely with the local population and directly with the Iraqi military as a military transition team member during her initial tour in 2007-2008. She returned in 2010-2011, first as a Company Commander and later a stability team transition team member, again working hand in hand with the same Iraqi military officers she had three years earlier.
During her first deployment, "we were out on missions with the Iraqis every week for a year. I was a M240B machine gunner in the lead vehicle of our three-vehicle convoy" -- an uncommon role for female Soldiers at that time, she explained.
"The days I spent as a gunner in a combat patrol was physically and mentally demanding," she added. "But like so many women before and after me, I knew that I was up to the task."
Aside from combat, there were many challenges female Soldiers had to face during that time, Hartwell said. For example, the Army's standard issued body armor was originally designed to fit a male body composition.
Hartwell recalled the pain she felt whenever the convoy would come to a quick halt, throwing her back against the rear of the gunner’s turret.
"My body armor would smack me in my spine because it was too big, even at an extra-small size," she said. "I would come back with bruises all down my spine."
Since her time in Iraq, there have been many changes to support women's growing role throughout the force, Hartwell said. For decades, female Soldiers wore the same uniform as their male counterparts.
The Army proposed a list of changes to the combat uniform design to better fit both genders in 2010. This initiative led to Army Combat Uniform-Alternate, or the first combat garment intentionally designed to fit a female Soldier.
Additionally, the Army released an Improved Outer Tactical Vest in 2013, which featured a shorter torso and a customizable design to support the female form.
"I feel that women in the Army also have a greater opportunity to take on a leadership role," she said. "In my tenure, I have seen women in the Army enter combat, graduate Ranger school, and now serve in combat arms.
"Women are taken more seriously and treated more professionally now," she added. "I have seen that change in the last 20 years, and it is a welcome change."
The National Army Museum’s exhibit team was dedicated to creating Soldier figures as authentic as possible.
“We worked very closely with the artists to capture a moment in time,” said Paul Morando, the museum’s chief curator. “Using Soldiers as models provides authenticity. They know how to hold their weapon, stand in formation, and convey emotion of what it’s like to be a Soldier.”
Joined by her husband, the couple flew to New York to participate in the figure-casting process.
"They started with my head by covering it with some form of a cap," she said. "They then put plaster all over my face except my nostrils." Once complete, "they went to my legs ... and then arms."
Hartwell held a specific pose during each layer of casting. The entire process took several hours, she said.
When people look at the figure, Hartwell hopes people will see "the determination of females in combat," she said. "Seeing the figure of myself is truly humbling. Hopefully, other women can see themselves in her as well.
"I feel fortunate, but I am not quite sure I deserved this," she added. "I am just another female Soldier, like the thousands serving in the Army right now."