Army Women's Foundation: Female Soldiers breaking ground, but more needed

by Joe Lacdan
U.S. Army

WASHINGTON -- Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Marks' eyes welled up as she talked about the role joining the Army has played in her life during an Army Women's Foundation Panel.

"I was raised by the Army," said Marks, a Paralympic swimmer who won an individual gold and relay bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympic games and four golds at the 2016 Invictus games. "I came from an abusive home. I didn't have a foundation. I didn't know who I was or what I wanted to be."

As a teenager growing up in Prescott Valley, Arizona, Marks was labeled an at-risk youth. She joined an educational program sponsored by the Army called the Arizona Project Challenge, a military-based program that helped mentor at-risk youth and provide structure in their lives. The staff sergeant from Fort Carson spoke at the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition Oct. 9.

The Army has afforded women like Marks opportunities that span a wide variety of career fields, but more women could be taking advantage of the opportunities, said keynote speaker retired Maj. Gen. Mari K. Eder. Women account for just 15 percent of enlisted Soldiers and 17 percent of the Army's officers.

Female Soldiers, however, continue to break new ground. Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army's Chief of Personnel, said Oct. 11 that more women will be assigned to more posts in the armor and combat career fields. Currently, about 550 female Soldiers who have completed training await assignments. The announcement follows previous milestones, including the first female Soldiers graduated from Ranger School in 2016. The first three female graduates finished combat engineer training at Fort Leonard Wood. In May, 18 women graduated from infantry school at Fort Benning. This past summer, the Army also graduated its first female cavalry scouts.

"You have people who are firsts, not because they intend to be a leader or they intend to set an example, but because they are pioneers," Eder said. "They are doing this because they want to. I am not sure that there were legions of people trying to follow Diane Nyad (long-distance swimmer who swam from Cuba to Florida) across the ocean. Or … even some of the women who fought in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. There are those who are first because they are independent thinkers."

When asked what could be done to increase numbers of female Soldiers, Eder said that recruiting ads are a major factor in shaping perceptions of the Army. Eder served as the Army's deputy chief of Public Affairs. Earlier in her career, she served as public affairs officer for the George C. Marshall European Center for Academic Studies in Germany.

"There is something for everybody," Eder said. "And I think we need to focus more on that in how we recruit, and how we're portrayed in Hollywood or in other movies."

Eder also discussed the importance of mentors, and how they shaped the lives of pioneering women.

PROJECT CHALLENGE TO CHAMP

Marks said she had her first mentors while in the Project Challenge program in Arizona: Guard and Reserve members. The program provided a rigid structure for Marks and the other teens as well as a support system she said that she didn't have at home. It inspired her to join the Army as a combat medic at age 17.

"The logical next was to join the military," Marks said, "because I loved these people. I all of a sudden had a family of people who cared about me for no reason."

Marks went on to deploy to Iraq, where her left leg and both hips were severely injured. She eventually became a swimmer and competed in the Army's World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson. Marks set a world record at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She now mentors other at-risk youth in Colorado.

"I got to be part of a family," Marks said. "So the Army has afforded me the ability to have a family and a network of people that trust. But that's why I stayed. That's why I'm so passionate about being in the military … I think that there are a lot of kids that deserve those chances. We aren't what we're born into. The Army affords that next step for everyone .. So it has given me tools that I might have never had the opportunity to have."

CSM GUERRA

Also on the panel, Command Sgt. Maj. Julie Guerra grew up in a two-bedroom house with six siblings. Her father, a pastor and plumber, struggled to make enough income to support her family. Guerra said the Army not only gave her career opportunities but provided much-needed stability in her life.

Guerra said her family didn't always have enough to eat. At one point she was homeless.

"It didn't matter where I came from and that I was poor and that I was Hispanic and that I was from the wrong side of town and that my brother was a gang member," Guerra said. "There's not very many opportunities outside what we get to do every single day as Soldiers. How it's equipped me is to prepare for the unexpected. As a leader, as a mother, whether in combat or in garrison, all of my training and opportunities and positions at this point have prepared me not to expect anything."

Guerra went on to become a counter-intelligence analyst and a drill sergeant.

Eder showed a picture of female generals and noted the importance of having mentors. In 2008, Ann Dunwoody became the Army's first female four-star general. Eder, a former commanding general of Army Reserve Joint and Special Troops Support Command at Salt Lake City, said that good mentors are needed to help bring more women to senior leadership.

"Do any think any of them felt like an anomaly at any point in their careers?" Eder said. "Maybe have some experiences where they're alone and don't have comrades, don't have colleagues and don't have mentors. Yes we have more women four-star generals now, but it has still been difficult in those many years since World War II to come up and do it without that type of help and support."

Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb, dean of the academic board at the Army's Military Academy, attended West Point at a time when women were not common at the school. She said her parents and professors helped mentor her and prepare her to become a future leader.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Phyllis Wilson, a senior army leadership instructor at the Army Warrant Officer Career College at Fort Rucker, originally enlisted in the Army to pay for college tuition. She later rose through the ranks of warrant officers and is the first female command chief warrant officer of Army Reserve Command.

"The biggest thing that came away is the network," Wilson said. "All you have to do is see somebody else in this uniform and you have a kinship and trust them almost exclusively … the preponderance of our Soldiers are the ones that we know have our back."

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