By Sgt. 1st Class Michel SauretFebruary 8, 2015
EDITOR'S NOTE: 1st Sgt. Raquel Steckman is the first female combat engineer senior sergeant (12Z qualified) in the Army appointed to a Sapper Company as a first sergeant. A sapper company is filled with combat engineer Soldiers (12B) whose entire mission is combat-focused. They are the equivalent of light infantrymen in their function, but with expertise in explosives.
Our original story said Steckman was the first female first sergeant across all combat engineer companies. There are other engineer companies with 12B Soldiers in the Army, and it was brought to our attention that at least one female first sergeant was appointed to such unit in 2013. However, that unit was primarily a construction-effects company. According to the U.S. Army Engineer School, no other female first sergeant held the 12Z qualification, which is a requirement for the combat engineer company position.
CONCORD, Calif. - She took charge of the formation for her first time since joining the unit.
There was no fanfare. There were no pink balloons or colorful streamers announcing her arrival.
"Receive the report," 1st Sgt. Raquel Steckman ordered the company.
Each platoon sergeant did, taking accountability of Soldiers among their ranks.
They reported back to Steckman: the first woman in the Army appointed as a sapper company first sergeant while qualified as a combat engineer senior sergeant (12Z).
A sapper company is the engineer equivalent to a light infantry unit, where engineers have a combat-focused mission with expertise in explosives.
But for her, being a woman is irrelevant. When the topic is brought up, she laughs it off entirely.
"I just don't think it's a big deal ...Why do you have to point out that I'm a freaking female? I'm trying to do a job here ... It just blows my mind," said Steckman, now with the 374th Engineer Company (Sapper), an Army Reserve unit located in Concord, California.
Being a female first sergeant, after all, is not such a monumental occasion. There have been plenty of them before Steckman around the Army, and plenty others who served as commanders and command sergeants major. Ranger school has recently opened to females, and more than 40 women have graduated the elite sapper training since 1999.
"Gender or race have no impact on how well (Soldiers) will perform a task," said Steckman.
So ... End of story. Stop the press.
Except her appointment marks another barrier breached in the integration process of women in combat units. There are more than 20,500 combat engineers across the Army, and currently none of them are women. The position is expected to open to females once a congressional notification from the Secretary of Defense makes it official. It will become one of 14 combat-specific military occupational specialties (MOS) that have been exclusive to males until now.
Steckman became eligible for this position because she joined the Army as a bridge crew member. Soldiers in her MOS train alongside combat engineers frequently, even as early as basic combat training. Combat engineers (12B) and bridge crew members (12C) both feed into the same leadership role: combat engineer senior sergeant (12Z). Only two women in the Army currently hold that position. Both are in the Army Reserve today.
"It's kind of hard to differentiate between 12C and 12B tasks because they over-lap. (As a bridge crew member) we would try to get to the demo range every 12 months ... We did engineer reconnaissance tasks frequently. I even set up (training) lanes one year at Fort McCoy and received an (Army Achievement Medal) from my battalion because they were so elaborate. It's not easy to qualify," said Steckman.
Being an Army Reserve unit doesn't make these combat engineers any less "manly." They talk about 12-mile ruck marches, bivouacking and 5-mile runs like it's their everyday life. During formation, platoons compete against each other.
They each appoint a Soldier to disassemble and reassemble an M240 machine gun to see who can do it fastest. Their Army jobs revolve around explosives, blowing stuff up.
However, both Steckman and her company commander have said that being an Army Reserve unit in the Bay Area, just an hour north of San Francisco, made this appointment an easy transition. That's why for Steckman, this "female thing" isn't such a big deal for her Soldiers.
"Their whole life isn't focused on (their Army job). They leave. They go home and they do other jobs. So their spectrum is much broader ... The reason why it's different in the Reserve is because those guys go to civilian jobs, where they interact with females all the time," said Steckman.
Steckman doesn't ask herself what her role is as a "female" first sergeant. Her focus is on the job, not the gender.
"I'm constantly asking: What does a first sergeant do? ... They always say beans and bullets, so (my) responsibility is to make sure the Soldiers are taken care of as far as training, vehicles and their well being," she said.
Steckman has wanted to serve in the military for as long as she remembers.
"My dad's favorite picture of me is where I'm wearing a purple one-piece swimsuit and my curly long hair sticking out from underneath my grandfather's sailor's hat, saluting. It's his favorite picture. Carries it around with him still," said Steckman, who grew up in Eben Junction in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
She wanted to join the Marine Corps at 17, but her parents wouldn't sign the paperwork. Instead, she joined the Army Reserve in 1998. She became one of the first female bridge crew members, which had opened up to women a few years prior. She fell in love with the job, learning to operate boats as a private.
"We went out on the water, and they said, 'Sure let's see how you do on the boat.' And they say you either get it or you don't. You either can operate or you can't. And I loved it ... I freaking loved it," she said.
From there, she grew in the ranks, eventually joining the Active Guard Reserve program and served as the operations sergeant at the company and battalion levels. Her office is decorated with awards, plaques and coins she collected from each unit or school she attended.
One multi-role bridge (MRB) company presented her with a red-haired Barbie dressed in a GI Joe uniform holding a plastic rifle. The Barbie is mounted to a wooden base with a plaque thanking her for her dedication and service. Her most prized award is a paddle from the 652nd Engineer Company (MRB), from Hammond, Wisconsin, where she spent 12 years.
When she graduated from her senior combat engineer course in North Dakota, she received two coins: one for making the commandant list, and the other for being the first female to graduate the course.
"I was actually pissed off they gave me a coin for being a female," she said.
There's no malice or resentment in her voice when she said this. She's not an "angry" woman, or a "bossy" woman. She doesn't see herself as having something to prove. She's just a Soldier in uniform.
"I just. I don't know. I've always wanted to fly under the radar and just be. I never wanted to be the center of attention," she said.
Interestingly, Steckman isn't the first woman to join the 374th Engineer Company. There are four other females in the unit already, all holding non-combat positions: Two are medics, one a mechanic and one a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist.
When asked, they don't make a big hoopla over having a female first sergeant.
"I'm really excited that everybody else is excited that we don't have penises," said Staff Sgt. Katherine Goodwin sarcastically when asked about this "moment in history."
She's one of the female medics at the unit, and she references the human anatomy often in some of her responses. Even as a woman, she's used to being one of the "guys." She gives medical care to male and female Soldiers as part of her job.
However, when given time to reflect, she sees the value in the Army changes happening around her.
"I was thinking about this. It's not about us. It's about all the women who had to deal with not being accepted and having to fight for their rights to do their jobs. We're just here. We're doing what we could have done all along. But somebody 20 years ago had to bust their ass. There's been nurses and medics getting killed that are female that weren't given the same opportunities that are now being given to us," she said.
She doesn't have to look far to see this reality.
Her fellow medic, Staff Sgt. Melissa Ruggieri, is now 38 years old. She said that 10 or 15 years ago, she was in the best shape of her life, but she was never afforded the opportunities some of the women are granted today.
She spent six years in active duty. She remembers a moment when she was about to pick up a combat litter during a training event, and a male Soldier cut her off. He grabbed the litter before she could. As though she were too fragile, and she might break from carrying her own share of the weight.
For much of their Army lives, they've seen female Soldiers treated as liabilities instead of assets. But now, things are changing.
"I wanted to be able to test myself, and see how far I could go (but wasn't allowed). I'm so happy for the females that are coming in that are able to test themselves to the limit. To go for it. Unfettered. It's gotta be amazing," said Ruggieri.
Being a Soldier doesn't mean they have to stop being feminine.
Steckman's face lights up when talking about her two children. Her motherly affection becomes evident in her eyes. She's been married five years to a man whom she considers a mentor. He is also a first sergeant, but with the Wisconsin National Guard.
Sometimes, when he opens the door for her, she playfully steps back so he can go through it first.
"I'm opening it for you," he would object. "Ever heard of chivalry?"
"I don't know what that is. I'm a Soldier," she would rebut, jokingly. "But he's always treating me like a lady."