ADA officer's career shoots down gender bias notions for military women
March 1, 2013
FORT BLISS, Texas--As the recent lifting of the ban on women serving in military combat roles sparks debates over whether women can handle the demands and challenges of certain combat jobs, one Air Defense Artillery officer is proof-positive that women in the military have already proven they can accomplish great things on and off the battlefield, and given the opportunity, will continue to succeed.
"It's not really about who you are -- man, woman -- it's what you do that matters. Concentrate on doing your very best as a Soldier; you're a Soldier first," said Col. Carolyn Birchfield, commander of First Army Division West's 402nd Field Artillery Brigade here. "My philosophy has always been to make a difference. Make a difference in your life and the lives of those around you. At the end of the day, we all just want an opportunity."
Birchfield said she hasn't experienced any real discrimination or bias during her career.
"The Air Defense Artillery (ADA) branch has been receptive to women serving in many positions and it's been like that for me since I first entered the field," she said. "Often, the circumstances I found myself in were based more on policy at the time, or cultural concerns. For instance, my assignments in Saudi Arabia were sometimes difficult, as female Soldiers had to live within the constraints all women in that country faced. I couldn't drive, had to ride in the backseat and had to wear an abaya. Certainly interesting given that I was a battery commander at the time."
The ADA branch proved to be an ideal fit for Birchfield as the branch has a long history for fostering careers of female officers. Despite the complexities of the Exclusion to Combat policy in 1977, the combat arms branch had many positions open to women, allowing them to serve on Hawk and Patriot missile systems. Over the years the branch has opened more positions to women.
After being commissioned an ADA officer in 1989, Birchfield's 23-year career took her back and forth across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with assignments throughout the Middle-East, Germany, Korea and the U.S.
Her first assignment was a platoon leader with an air defense artillery battalion in Germany. She soon deployed in support of Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm and served as acting battery commander.
As she took on more progressively challenging leadership roles and pursued career academics, she relied on her experience and knowledge and her emerging leadership skills rather than any favoritism or leniency.
"From the very start, I focused on learning as much as possible. My first assignment to Germany (during the Cold War) and then being deployed was certainly a forcing mechanism for me to learn my craft," she said. "From that point on, I looked at each assignment as an opportunity."
She also took advantage of every opportunity to advance. During 2001 policy had progressed in the ADA branch so that more positions became open to women. While at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., Birchfield heard the first discussions to allow women to go to divisional ADA units.
"For me, that was very significant and played a big role in the way ahead for my career. When I first came into ADA, I was only allowed to go the Patriot formations," she said. "I immediately volunteered and was soon slotted to an ADA battalion under 1st Armored Division in Germany. I am proud to say that I was the first female to serve as the battalion's S3 (operations) officer."
She said she believes any success achieved is primarily influenced by those around us. She had many leaders who mentored and coached her throughout her career.
First assignments are usually the most memorable and Birchfield said that while she was serving as acting battery commander, her battalion commander made a lasting impression on her. He made it a point to come see her when they were deployed to spend time teaching, mentoring, coaching her, and helping her focus on all she needed to do until her commander arrived.
There have been many others who also had a positive impact on her.
"There were many excellent female leaders who influenced me and that I looked up to," she said. "Later in my life I had the privilege of serving under Maj. Gen. (Heidi V.) Brown."
Brown, director of tests for the Missile Defense Agency at Huntsville, Ala., was the first woman to command a Patriot missile battalion, the first woman to command an air defense artillery brigade and to lead a brigade into combat. She was also the first female general officer in the air defense artillery branch.
Just as she's benefited from the coaching and mentoring she's received, Birchfield believes in "paying it forward."
"I especially enjoyed my time as an instructor at the Captain's Advanced Course for ADA here. As an instructor you have the chance to make a difference in others' lives," she said. "It's rewarding to know you have a lot of influence over your students and that they take a piece of you and what you taught them back to their formations."
Not only has Birchfield made a difference in others' lives, she has made an impact on the career field.
As an air defense officer at the Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab in Colorado Springs, Colo., she worked on a project using pagers to provide early warning for incoming missiles. In a later assignment, she also served as the ADA branch chief where she worked closely with the ADA commandant.
"Both positions were rewarding as I had direct influence over the betterment of the branch," she said. "The Battle Lab assignment was a great opportunity to learn about new technology and commercial off-the shelf technology and seeing how you can apply it to the warfighter.
"As branch manager my influence was to help them with manning issues and to keep all formations updated and aware of the future plans for the branch," she added.
From butter-bar lieutenant to full-bird colonel, Birchfield has gone full circle, coming back to the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command here and deploying in 2011 as the command's representative in the Air Operations Center located forward at Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar.
Now she's just seven months into her new command at the 402nd FA BDE, part of First Army's Division West.
"First Army is very much different from any formation I've been a part of before as we're a multi-compo unit with a unique training mission. We provide mobilization and demobilization training for Reserve and National Guard units for their missions downrange. We definitely make a difference in each one of those Soldiers' lives," Birchfield explained. "I might be a little bit out of my comfort zone, but as with any other assignment, you rely on the people around you to achieve success."
Birchfield's tenacity and dedication to being the "best you can be" has served her career well. It doesn't end there, as she also applies the philosophy to other areas of her life.
"I believe that being fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle makes a difference and allows you to have a better quality of life. Growing up in Colorado, I developed a love of running and the outdoors," she said. "Everyone, men and women, young and old, should aspire to make health and fitness a part of their life."
Birchfield emphasizes that just as it is in work, there should be no gender bias in play.
The lifting of the ban on women serving in military combat roles has raised the issue of lowering standards for women or coming up with one standard for certain jobs and the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). Birchfield said she advocates maintaining the standards.
"I believe that standards are the standard and shouldn't be changed just to make it easier for women. Honestly, in my opinion, the standards we have now for the APFT are too low. I know there are women who can certainly meet and even exceed set standards," she said.
Birchfield is a shining example, as the 47-year old typically scores just under 400 on all her APFTs.
Whatever credit she modestly gives to others, the milestones and accomplishments she's achieved speak to her professionalism and abilities. Her many awards and decorations include the Bronze Star and the Parachutist and Air Assault badges. She is a member in the Ancient Order of Saint Barbara.