CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- Major Iajaria "Heidi" Fernandez, currently deployed with the 29th Infantry Division here, recently walked up to a 125-pound barbell at the Functional Fitness gym in preparation for the 2017 CrossFit Open. When she lifted that, she added ten pounds.
The past century has boasted a wide array of women showing the world they are strong and fearless. Women's History Month highlights women like Maj. Fernandez that strive for the next goal. From Amelia Earhart to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to bodybuilder Rachel McLish, women have proven they can set the standard by flying around the world, making history in politics or setting the stage as athletes. Fernandez is following on their success in her own way.
The 38-year-old Operations Research Systems Analyst for the 29th Infantry Division set her goal to complete a 125 pound snatch during a recent CrossFit workout.
Although Fernandez outlifts and outshines many of the men in the Camp Arifjan gym, her strength extends far beyond that of her performance in the gym. Her dedication to fitness, her contribution to a female engagement team (FET) in Afghanistan as well as being the female commander of a Headquarters Company, culminate to create a prime example of what determination can achieve.
"It was her strength that I was drawn to," said her husband, CrossFit partner, and G8 noncommissioned officer-in-charge for 29ID, Sgt. 1st Class Bladimiro Fernandez, about when the couple first met. "If she focuses on something -- school, work, gym, anything-- she works hard to get it."
Whether it is in the uniform or in the gym, Fernandez says his wife stands as a role model to her peers, subordinates, and even superiors. While she does indeed appear to have accomplished much over the years, life took the young Fernandez down a few different paths before she found the course she wanted to follow.
Fernandez always admired men and women in uniform. Even though she wanted to join the military at 18 she was swayed to attend college instead. With one brother in the Marines and one in the National Guard, she was constantly reminded of the dream she had to serve. Finally, in her senior year Fernandez pledged the oath.
After a couple of years in California as a newly minted lieutenant, Fernandez got a four-day pass and chose to spend it visiting her brother in Washington D.C. It was during this visit she fell in love with the city. She applied for a job with National Guard Bureau, packed up her car and moved from one shining sea to the next, drawn to how organized and active the Capitol is.
"You see people in their business suits with their running shoes going to work on the metro," she said, smiling. "For some reason I found that fascinating and I said "I want to be part of that".
After deploying with the California National to Iraq in 2008, three years later Fernandez found herself back in the Middle East with the Headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, Virginia National Guard. Despite already having a journey full of hurdles, it was on this deployment to Afghanistan that Fernandez believes she grew the most. As the Provost Marshal for the Brigade, she was in a unique position. And as a staff officer she was the lowest on the totem pole with her captain bars. It was a constantly evolving mission.
"It was a development tour," she recalled. "I didn't know what I was getting into until we got into theater."
Fernandez and her team performed physical security and detainee operations as well as trained and worked with the FET for which she served as the officer-in-charge.
When Fernandez was at NGB the concept of the FET was in its infancy. She witnessed the Bureau putting together the training support package, but she didn't ever foresee herself being a part of its implementation.
"I don't know how it got sold," she said, "but it was put in place and we began the training."
Chief Warrant Officer Christina Gedney, legal administrator for the 29ID and formerly one of the four women on the FET under Fernandez, shared the same sentiment toward the Afghan women and hope their team made a positive impact. Gedney was adamant that even though the title, "female engagement team", existed that the team was able to go on missions with the female Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) and make a difference only because Fernandez made it happen.
"The brigade had to have an FET, but there was little in the way of requirements," said Gedney, noting it was Fernandez who put the wheels in motion. "She coordinated the missions-- we were able to play a role in aiding the AUP women because of her."
The team worked with groups of women training in specific skill sets, such as how to engage other women at a market, or how to read the atmospherics of a village. Such efforts were constructed to help give a voice to the women and to obtain the other half of stories told primarily by men. One group of women, eight female AUP officers, worked covertly, as most of them feared their husband's disapproval. One of the largest struggles, Fernandez said, was watching these women risk being punished or even disowned for trying to better their lives and those of their family.
"We grow up as independent women where we have the right to choose your own path and make your own decisions," she said. "They don't."
Many of these women were just trying to keep a roof over their heads and the bellies of their family full. In Afghanistan, Fernandez explained that it is common for women to marry men 20-plus years their senior, so when they approach middle age their husbands are too old to work and in turn the family is left with no source of income. For some women it was a means of keeping food on the table, others hoped to earn enough to open their own business. To be able to sell almonds, raisins, or scarves meant more reliable revenue.
Now on deployment with Fernandez in Kuwait, Gedney stated her admiration for Fernandez also extended to her affinity for fitness.
"I remember being in the gym and she was the only female in there throwing around heavy kettlebells." said Gedney. "She got me into CrossFit years ago and I now do it every day."
Mr. and Mrs. Fernandez make their way down to the gym each evening, half of them spent coaching beginners in addition to their own workout. The newlyweds team together to teach the fundamentals of the exercises to ensure newcomers don't get hurt in the process. Mr. Fernandez admitted when it comes to their workouts even though they are equally dedicated, she often beats him. This determination is something he said he sees as truly engrained into his other half.
"It's not easy balancing two professional lives --military and civilian-- but she always seems to come out on top," said Mr. Fernandez. "What I see her accomplish at work, in the gym or even around the house has become natural to me, but others are surprised."
Thirteen years since donning her first set of fatigues, Fernandez counts her blessings, but recognizes each and every obstacle she has overcome has only pushed her to rise above adversity. The words of the famous poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou resonate throughout Fernandez's career, particularly her work "Still I Rise," artfully illustrating Fernandez's philosophy that even if someone beats you down there is always an opportunity to rise.
The second work of Angelou's that Fernandez mentioned, speaks more specifically to her as a woman. "Phenomenal Woman," illustrates the inner beauty and inner power a woman possesses apart from her façade.
"Maya Angelou's words are so powerful," she said. "They assure you that you can be graceful and beautiful and strong."
Fernandez applauds women worldwide putting aside self-doubt and achieving feats big and small. She said she is moved by feats taken on by women such as Angelou, the two female Army Rangers that were recently "tabbed", and her mother. As a daughter Fernandez admitted she received a lot of tough love, but she attributes it to shaping her into the resilient woman she is today. Despite her strength of body and character, Fernandez admitted she is easily moved by women who impart inspiration through their triumphs.
"When you look at the CrossFit games and see a 135 pound woman clean and jerk 240 pounds, that is impressive," she said.
Angelou's words have inspired Fernandez and in turn she offers words of inspiration to each and every woman who doubts herself.
"You will be tested through every assignment", Fernandez warns, but then promises, "Once you get over the fear that you are not strong or capable enough you will be surprised how much you can accomplish, after all we are women, phenomenally."