173rd paratroopers honor women throughout history

By Staff Sgt. Opal VaughnMarch 23, 2016

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173rd paratroopers honor women throughout history
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VICENZA, Italy - U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade celebrated Women's History Month by highlighting some of the accomplishments that women have made in public and government service.

For the 173rd, integrating female paratroopers began with 1st Lt. Leslie Balfaqih, a Military Police Officer. On June 13, 2000, she was the third paratrooper to exit a C-130 aircraft at Juliet Drop Zone in Pordenone, Italy. Unknowingly, she became the first female Sky Soldier to jump with the brigade.

Now, there are women paratroopers who serve in every battalion as company commanders, leaders, jumpmasters, lawyers, and engineers, playing vital roles in today's Army and within the brigade. These female leaders are responsible for setting the conditions for all paratroopers to reach their full potential, and as such, are assigned tasks and jobs throughout the force based on ability, not gender.

In honor of these women in public and government service, an observance was held, March 22, 2016, at the Golden Lion on Caserma Ederle.

Sixteen women were selected as Honorees for this year's observance. Guest speaker was U.S. Army Europe's Command Sgt. Maj. Sheryl Lyon. She is the first female command sergeant major for USAREUR.

The theme of the observance, "Working to Form a More Perfect Union," presented the opportunity to honor women who have shaped America's history and its future, said Lyon.

"The women we honor have influenced public policy and the building of viable institutions and organizations," said Lyon. "It is this history that helps us shape who we are."

And it is a fitting theme, as women in the brigade take every opportunity to advance themselves. They inspire future generations of Soldiers to not just become paratroopers or jumpmasters, but equally integrated into all Army specialties as their predecessors did before them.

"Women's history month is a great opportunity for all members of the armed forces, and really the national and internal community to recognize women who have shattered glass ceilings and advanced to positions that women have previously not been able to fill," said 1st Lt. Elizabeth Brunette, Command Group Operations Officer, 173rd Airborne Brigade.

"Women's history month gives us the opportunity to recognize those women, to learn more about them, and to congratulate them for opening up so many different avenues, jobs and positions," said Brunette. "It's also an opportunity for us to recognize women who are in positions right now of greater leadership, to congratulate them for reaching that level."

Defense Secretary Ash Carter officially announced, Jan. 1, 2016, the signing of a bill that allows women to serve in combat arms positions. With that announcement, female Soldiers have the opportunity to take positions that once were only open to men, and have begun breaking down gender barriers.

Spc. Justin Albert, a paratrooper assigned to the 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, agrees that allowing women to serve in combat arm positions shows how the Army is progressing.

"I believe allowing women to serve in combat arms positions is a real [positive] step for the Army and shows that we are becoming more understanding of each other within our ranks," said Albert.

Progression did not come without a price.

More than 300,000 women have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq according to Department of Defense archives. Of those women, more than 9,000 female troops have earned Combat Action Badges, 800 have been wounded, and at least 160 have died from combat and noncombat-related incidents.

Of the countless lives lost, eighteen women from the 173rd Airborne Brigade paid the ultimate sacrifice in support of their country. Their sacrifice was for the freedoms that we now hold dear.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, is the U.S. Army Contingency Response Force in Europe, capable of projecting forces to conduct the full range of military operations across the United States European, Central and Africa Commands areas of responsibility.