CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo -- Every year on Aug. 26, Americans celebrate and commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

Deemed Women's Equality Day in 1971, the occasion has evolved over the years to celebrate many turning points for women's empowerment. Recently service members from all branches celebrated another triumph, as the Department of Defense opened all military occupational specialties to women.

While the policy changes symbolize a brighter future with more choices for prospective Soldiers, it also signifies a great achievement for female Soldiers like U.S. Army Sgt. Nilda Jenkins, who helped pave the way for gender equality.

Like many Soldiers past and present, Jenkins, a mortuary affairs noncommissioned officer with the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Infantry Division, challenged the limitations imposed on women service members by leading from the front in a male-dominate force.

"I wanted to be a sniper but I was told that women could not do that in the military and when I asked why, I was given a reason," said Jenkins. "At the time I felt the reason was good enough and I accepted it."

Although she accepted it, this wasn't the first time the 46-year-old mother of two was told she couldn't do something.

All of her life, Jenkins, who hails from Queens, New York, was told by friends, family and even her husband she couldn't achieve certain dreams.

Fueled by the discouraging words, she earned an associate degree in Mortuary Science, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master's degree in Political Science. She also earned certificates to become an emergency medical technician, surgical technician and electrician.

"I wanted to learn and know everything about this world," she said. "I felt hungry for knowledge."

Hungry to find her place, Jenkins' resume also challenged what many people would think possible.

Before enlisting at the age of 40, she worked jobs as a; private investigator, accountant, real estate agent, mortgage loan officer, welder, electrician, morgue assistant, funeral director and nurse assistant.

Although many of those jobs carried with them stereotypes of being male dominated, there were still no written rules against women being hired in the field. For Jenkins, being turned down as a sniper was the first time there was a clear-cut rule targeting gender qualifications.

Like many Soldiers, the gender restrictions weren't enough to stop Jenkins from enlisting.

Instead, she put aside her desire to be a sniper and decided to focus on fulfilling her lifelong dream of being a Soldier regardless of the job.
"I always wanted to join the military," Jenkins said. "I always had a passion to serve my country and I felt it was and should be every American's duty."

Searching for a way to serve her country, Jenkins said she went to her recruiter and let her job choose her.

"I believe this field chose me," she said. "Since I was 10 years old I wanted to relieve the pain from the hearts and minds of people. I originally wanted to revive life but realized that death is the final existence and I wanted to bring peace to the families. I wanted to give them one final chance to remember their loved ones resting in peace."
Having found her place, Jenkins made it her duty to honorably serve as a mortuary affairs Soldier.

"I feel it is my duty to make sure that the deceased are kept safe and protected and leave with dignity," she added.

Although her duty description often revolves around the deceased, Jenkins' positive attitude, high level of motivation and constant smile has expanded her influence to the living.

"Sgt. Jenkins is a great Soldier and a great person," said Capt. Matthew Ward, plans officer for NATO's Kosovo Force. "She cares about her Soldiers and her first priority is always the team or the unit, never making herself look good at the expense of those she leads. She is a wonderful role model, not just for females considering joining the Army but for all current and future service members."

Her influence even extended to her former battalion commander, retired Lt. Col. Kevin Ferner.

"Sgt. Jenkins is an outstanding illustration of the Citizen-Soldier; a Soldier, a civilian employee, and a full-time mother," Ferner said. "The most inspiring part is she does everything with a smile while setting the bar for all others to follow. For the command team, she was a go-to Soldier in the section who always had a pulse on the unit, the section and her Soldiers. For a young woman coming into the military there could be no better example of what right looks likeā€¦ she is a true role model."

As she continues to motivate others, Jenkins finds her motivation from the women who fearlessly served and those currently serving around her.

"I think that we have come a long way as women in this world, being able to have jobs and take on positions that empower us, allowing us to be all that we can be," she said.

Jenkins pointed to the presidential race as proof that women are making great progress toward gender equality.

"Take a look at Hillary Clinton - she is running to become the first woman president of the United States, which in itself is a great achievement for us as women," Jenkins said. "I am personally proud of her for taking such a huge step in a society that still has some taboos about women."
Unbiased by who wins the election, she said the candidacy of Mrs. Clinton is enough to inspire women all over the world to push and exceed limitations.

As for herself, the Citizen-Soldier said she has put her dreams of becoming a sniper aside and instead hopes she can continue to set a positive example for future Soldiers, while helping tear down any imperceptible limitations still lingering from the DOD's policy change.

"I am glad the DOD opened up all MOSs to women and for any woman who feels she can handle it, kudos to her," said Jenkins. "We still have a lot of work to do but I think we are definitely on the right track."

Defense Secretary Ash Carter recognized there would still be challenges to overcome when he announced his Women in Service review during a press briefing on Dec. 3, 2015.

"Fully integrating women into all military positions will make the U.S. armed forces better and stronger but there will be problems to fix and challenges to overcome," he said. "We shouldn't diminish that."
Despite these challenges Carter offered encouraging words for the way ahead.

The military has long prided itself on being a meritocracy, where those who serve are judged only on what they have to offer to help defend the country, Carter said.

"That's why we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known," he added, "and it's one other way we will strive to ensure that the force of the future remains so, long into the future."

Understanding, like Carter, that there is still a lot of work ahead for gender equality, Jenkins, who is currently deployed with the Multinational Battle Group-East in Kosovo, believes her history of achieving things people tell her she couldn't has prepared her for the long road ahead.

As she prepares to return home to Pennsylvania and reunite with her family later this year, Jenkins said she is proud to be a part of an Army that is evolving and embracing gender equality.

"I feel exhilarated and honored to be a part of such a great brotherhood and sisterhood," Jenkins said. "I am so grateful and proud to wear this uniform and say that 'I am a Soldier in the United States Army'."

(Editors Notes: Quotes from Defense Secretary Ash Carters Speech are from the defense.gov article: http://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/632536/carter-opens-all-military-occupations-positions-to-women)