FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Women's History Month, celebrated in March, highlights the important contributions of women to our nation, both historically and in today's society.
Women like Deborah Sampson, the first American women to serve in combat, have played vital roles in our Army since the Revolutionary War. Sampson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Continental Army.
In 2016, the Secretary of Defense opened all combat jobs to women. Today, women serve in every career field in the Army, and are critical members of the Army team.
The theme for this year's observance, according to the National Women's History Month Project, is "Nevertheless she persisted: Honoring women who fight all forms of discrimination against women."
Capt. Ashley Sorensen, an adjutant for the 71st Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), is one such woman whose persistence and determination helped her to become the best version of herself.
Sorensen began her career with the Army in 2006, and has since competed in numerous national, world-class and Olympic athlete programs, broke a world record, and served among the first female Soldiers in combat-oriented positions -- but her story did not start with the Army, it started in high school.
Sorensen said as a junior at Pius High School, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she walked into an Army recruiting station, having little to no knowledge of what to expect, and inquired about joining the Infantry.
"I was confused when I was told I couldn't be infantry because I was a female," said Sorensen. "because I was used to breaking barriers."
Sorensen was one of three females to ever play for her high school men's hockey team, which caused the school to annotate the sport with an asterisk that signified females could play if they made the team. Additionally, she was the weightlifting champion in her age and weight class at the 2005 USA Weightlifting National School-Age Championships, in Merrillville, Indiana.
"So, when this recruiter told me I couldn't be infantry because I was female, I looked beyond him to a small poster advertising West Point. I decided that day, I was going to go there," said Sorensen.
During Sorensen's application process to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, she excelled in all categories except the physical portion due to an injury to her wrist. In addition to potentially ending her Army career before it began, the injury had already ended her hockey career.
"I was devastated," said Sorensen.
She later received a letter from West Point granting her a reevaluation of the physical portion of the application. By that time, she had injured her good wrist. Sorensen, not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to serve in the Army, pushed herself to complete the physical with braces on both wrists.
"It was more difficult, but I sucked it up and was accepted in to West Point," said Sorensen.
Sorensen's father, Tom Sorensen said, "She is pretty headstrong ... if you want to make sure Ashley does something, just tell her she can't."
Once again, she found herself in a situation where she had no idea what to expect. She said the four years at West Point went by fast and were a humbling experience.
"I am use to being physically and intellectually dominant; but at the academy, I was definitely in a new league of intellectuals," said Sorensen.
In her senior year at West Point, she joined the academy's rugby team. The sport was well suited for Sorensen's headstrong character and competitive nature, so much so that she earned a spot on one of the USA Rugby's 2010 Women's Collegiate All-American teams.
Later that year, the academy team made it to the final four in a national competition, during which her performance sparked interest in talent-scouts from both U.S. Olympic rugby and bobsled teams.
After graduating West Point, she tried out for and was selected to for both the 2014 Winter Olympics bobsled and the 2016 Summer Olympics rugby teams. Due to competing commitments, Sorensen chose to withdraw from both teams to continue to pursue an Army career as an EOD officer.
"EOD school was a blur. Every test wasn't hard to pass, but it was extremely easy to fail," said Sorensen. "There were times I almost quit, but I am glad that I didn't."
During EOD training, she was selected to play for a second consecutive year on the USA Rugby Women's Collegiate All-American team; however, she turned down the offer in pursuit of her EOD career.
Sorensen said the decision tormented her for months until a nonchalant comment reignited her passion for a challenge.
Sorensen, having graduated EOD school and serving as a EOD officer at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, came across an article about a female world record for a one-mile run in a bomb suit.
"My first sergeant at the time (now Command Sgt. Maj. David Silva, 79th EOD Battalion command sergeant major) said he thought I could beat the record. A week later, I did a trial run and beat the record -- by a lot," said Sorensen.
Silva said he knew she could beat the record because, "she is never content with average."
"Her physical abilities are so impressive," said Silva. "But it wasn't her strength that impressed me, it was her approach."
For the next 18 months Silva and Sorensen worked the logistics of hosting a Guinness world-record event.
"With a ton of support and help from my unit; I did it!" Sorensen said. "I have a world record."
Sorensen set the Guinness record -- fastest mile in a bomb disposal suit (female) -- with a time of 11:06 at the University of Hawaii Athletics Track in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sept. 23, 2013.
"The experience taught me that it isn't always something huge and life-changing that inspires you. Sometimes it's a nonchalant comment that shows faith in our abilities and drives you to succeed," said Sorensen.
"She is committed to success and her personality is one that inspires others to follow," said Silva.
After breaking the record, Sorensen was contacted by representatives at the Army's World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), offering her a seat in the program. She was contacted as well by representatives from U.S. Army Pacific Command, offering her the option to participate in pilot program that would allow female Soldiers into Ranger School. As fate would have it, she seriously injured her knee and was unable to attend either program.
"I thought my life was over. Everything I was known for seemed to be torn from me," said Sorensen.
It would take more than a year and two surgeries before she could walk up and down stairs.
Sorensen said this was the lowest point in her life and she was ready for some good news, which came in the form of a recommendation to attend the Army's Maneuver Captains Career Course (MCCC) from her battalion commander.
EOD officers generally attend the Logistics Captains Career Course because EOD is viewed as a support element within the Army, whereas the maneuver course is for combat elements. Not only was this a rare occasion for an EOD officer, it was unheard of for a female EOD officer to attend such a course.
According to a familiar acquaintance of Sorensen, Capt. Dan Marvin, an EOD assignments officer at the Army's Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Sorensen is currently the only female EOD officer to graduate from MCCC.
"She is a great officer doing great things for the EOD community," said Marvin.
During MCCC, Sorensen accepted a team captain position for the Armed Forces Women's Rugby team.
"Sorensen is one of the most talented Soldier athletes I have worked with," said Capt. Andrew Locke, who at the time was the Armed Forces Women's Rugby head coach.
"She is one of those players who lead by example," said Locke, currently an operations officer with Special Operations Detachment - Africa, Texas Army National Guard. "She is also a smart player, knows the game well, and puts her teammates into positions to be successful."
Locke, who also served as an assistant coach for Team USA's Men's Olympic Rugby team through WCAP, said that Sorensen has been on the radar for both the U.S. World Cup and Olympic-level rugby teams.
"It takes a special type of athlete to be competitive in both and Sorensen is one of those athletes," said Locke.
Upon completion of the captain's course, Sorensen took command of 749th Ordnance Company, located on post, which was preparing to deploy in support of a special operations mission in Afghanistan.
Sorensen and her company supported more than 300 missions during the six-month deployment, an achievement she said was a direct result of those in her command.
"I honestly could not have been prouder of the group that I deployed with and the professionalism of the Soldiers who remained to man the rear-detachment. It was truly an honor to be a part of the 749th EOD," she said.
Throughout Sorensen's many personal and professional accomplishments, she said "People ask me all the time, 'Is it difficult to be in a male-dominant career field within a male-dominant career?'"
"Generally, my answer is no," she said. "Just be true to yourself."
"You have to be honest and willing to do the things that are uncomfortable to promote change," she added. "At the end of the day, you need to be the best version of you."