FORT Sill, Okla. (March 10, 2016) -- Sometimes a person is just in the right place at the right time.

And so it was for Pfc. Katherine Beatty when she learned her chosen military occupational specialty (MOS) in signal intelligence wasn't going to work out. Then came an offer too good to pass up.

Why not be the Army's first female cannoneer?

"They said I could pick a different MOS," she said of her nine-week holdover after basic combat training. The combat specialty of 13B cannon crewmember was on the list. "They said there was a lot of heavy lifting, and it's a pretty high speed job, and I would be the first female. I was pretty excited about it. I called my husband (in Inverness, Fla.) He's infantry and works side by side with 13 Bravos. He told me what to expect and I just went for it."

Not only did she pass, she excelled, earning the title of distinguished honor graduate for Class No. 12-16. She was assistant platoon guide (APG) and helped teach her peers. She also earned the top scores in several exams and passed her Go/No go events, including the high physical demand test, the first time.

She said none of it was easy, especially the first week.

The Army's new High Physical Demand Test (HPDT) was in place for the first time, and men and women both need to pass it to graduate from 13B school.

She said the most difficult task was loading and unloading 15 155mm ammunition shells weighing nearly 100 pounds apiece.

"That was pretty tough," she said. "We had 15 minutes to do it." That means moving 3,000 pounds a feat even some men couldn't do.

"I did power lifting and trained with my husband, Charles (before enlisting)," she said of her ability to pass the test. She also went to the gym in her spare time while at Fort Sill. She said Charles is her hero because of all the support he's given her.

Beatty earned high praise from her primary AIT instructor, Staff Sgt. Michael Prater, as well as her battle buddies.

"She's held her own as an APG, as far as leading the Soldiers where they need to be, keeping up with who's on sick call, who's in formation, and who's not," said Prater after her platoon's live-fire training, March 1. "She took good notes and kept up with the training. Pfc. Beatty was an excellent Soldier."

Pvt. Marc Etinne, one of her battle buddies, said initially he wasn't sure how things were going to work out with a female in a combat MOS.

"At first I was like, 'oh, this is going to be interesting,'" he said. "But then the sergeant talked to us and said anybody in Army green, we have to treat them with respect. She really surprises me with all the physical stuff she can do. She's been treated just like everybody else. She's a great Soldier."

Her other battle buddy, Pvt. Jesse Hurtado, agreed. He said having a female in his 13B class was "awesome."

"She worked a lot harder than the males did at some point," he said. "She proved herself. She made her battle buddies push harder because she was there pushing with them. She's an inspiration, seeing her going through what we're doing. We all love her. She's an awesome battle buddy. We all want her to do great in her career."

Beatty's platoon specialized in the 105mm lightweight towed M119A3 howitzer. Even though those shells weigh around 30 pounds, all 13B Soldiers need to be able to meet the physical standard with the 155mm shells used in the M777 and the Paladin howitzers. They also need to be able to drag a casualty in combat, so part of the HPDT is to drag a 270-pound skid 20 meters out and back.

Although the physical part of training was grueling, Beatty said she loved it. She and her husband have taken their 2-year-old daughter hiking and lead an active life, she said. Being the first woman wasn't as much as an obstacle as she thought.

"Everyone treats me like a Soldier, like part of the team," she said. "There was a lot of positivity from my platoon, the instructors, the NCOs. It's been really awesome."

Week 4 of training was hands-on dry fire with the M119A3. March 1, her class fired on the equipment they were trained on. Booms from the M777 and the Paladin interspersed with shots fired from Beatty's team. Finally it was her turn.

She fired three rounds, then caught the next gunner's smoking cartridge when it was ejected, and spent time on the radio and recording firing data. When the last round was called, Prater took out a marker and began writing on the shell. Pens materialized and everyone squeezed in to leave their message on it. Beatty's read "Miss 13B."

Then she returned to the radio and called, "last round!" The excited cannoneers echoed her, and rushed the round into the chamber. Prater checked the round, held up his hand, and yelled, "stand by," for the umpteenth time that day. Then he dropped his arm and yelled, "fire!" The round sped off to into the distant hillside, and everyone cheered. Then they started tearing down and had a late lunch of meals, ready to eat.

"Everyone was excited in our platoon. I can definitely say that we had a lot of fun today. This is what we've been waiting for," said Beatty.

Although she hoped to go to Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., Beatty has been assigned to Fort Carson, Colo., following her graduation March 11.

Although she "jumped the gun" so to speak in being trained as a cannoneer, there are more than a dozen women coming behind her. Her advice to them: "Go for it. It's an awesome job. You've got to be strong, both physically and mentally, but there's definitely a lot of support here."

Editor's note: See the video of Beatty's training on the Fort Sill Tribune's Facebook page.