FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Bullets flew by and shrapnel flew all around —the air, filled with dark smoke and adrenaline. The sound of metal rang clear.
"Soldier down!” shouted someone. “We need a Medic!"
The casualty was loaded on the litter, and the long carry had just begun. The smallest Soldier in the Company was stationed at the back of the litter.
"Zarate, do you need help?” another person asked. “Zarate, do you need a break?"
The Soldier declined. She was not giving up.
Pvt. Estefania Zarate-Rivas is an infantryman in 1st Platoon, Cohort Company, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI), and just participated in her first Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise on Sept. 14, 2020, on Fort Drum, N.Y.
"I really enjoyed this training," said Zarate-Rivas Rivas. "It was a little hard, but I am really proud of what I am doing."
Zarate-Rivas stands at five-foot-three, but what she lacks in height, she makes up for in guts and determination. She serves as an ammunition bearer for the weapons squad within her unit. However, first and foremost, she is a rifleman, meaning she participates in firing at the enemy, clearing buildings, carrying litters, and various battle drills.
Zarate-Rivas joined the Army as an infantryman in December 2019, after being inspired by her stepfather, Oscar Diaz, an infantryman in the Mexican Military. Zarate-Rivas said she lived in Mexico City until she was 16 and immigrated to Newark, Del. During her childhood years living with her stepfather in Mexico, she observed just how exciting life in the infantry could be.
"To me, he is my father because he raised me," said Zarate-Rivas. "When I was little, I would see him go to his job in his military uniform. He would show me all his pictures and videos of doing all the infantry cool stuff. I knew I wanted to do that too."
With a head full of nerves, adrenaline pumping through her veins, and a year and half of intense preparation, Zarate-Rivas said she was physically and mentally ready to be shipped off to One Station Unit Training. She shipped to infantry Basic Combat Training, at Fort Benning, Ga. shortly after graduating from Christiana High School, Del.
The drill sergeants put Zarate-Rivas through multiple grueling physical and mental challenges while at Benning and said she felt like she had the added pressure of proving that she was just as capable as the men, despite her gender and size.
"My main goal at basic was to show everyone that I can do my job, despite being a five-foot-three female in a male environment," said Zarate-Rivas. "That goal still persists today."
However, Zarate-Rivas said her body almost gave out during the two most formidable challenges: The Forge, an intense three-day cumulative training exercise, and The Bayonet, a 23-mile ruck march completed in two days and the final event to becoming a full-fledged Soldier in the infantry.
Zarate-Rivas said she found the Forge to be the toughest part of her whole OSUT experience. She was an assistant gunner during the exercise, so in addition to her rifle and rucksack, she also had to carry a heavy M240 machine gun tripod and its spare barrel for the entire three-day period.
"I was not used to the heavy weight at that point, and there were times when I really wanted to step out of the formation and just drop everything," said Zarate-Rivas.
Zarate-Rivas was able to push through because of her faith, and by thinking of her supportive family, she said.
"I tried to distract myself from the pain by thinking about my family and God. I felt so proud of myself and relieved when I finished. I was so impressed with my body and discovered it is more resistant than I ever could have imagined."
After 22 long, demanding weeks of OSUT, Zarate-Rivas graduated and was sent to Fort Drum, and was the first female ever assigned to 1st Platoon in Cohort Company. Despite initially coming off as quiet, laid back and small, Spc. Kelan Diaz, who is also in her team, said she has proven to excel at physical training and puts in 100 percent effort at all times, regardless of the task at hand.
"During (physical training), Zarate-Rivas always outshines almost everyone," said Diaz. "during field exercises, leaders always tell me that she is pitch-perfect, and always on it. She runs faster than almost anyone."
Zarate-Rivas has enjoyed physically demanding, male-dominated sports since she was a child, like boxing and taekwondo. She said she was underestimated frequently because of her gender, weight, and height, but this motivated her to start working out to get even stronger. She attributes this training early in her life to helping her excel at PT today.
Her mother always supported her interests and helped her become mentally strong to combat the negative stereotypes she faced.
"My mom taught me how to handle situations where people thought I was weak, and she told me not to let them define me," said Zarate-Rivas.
Her physical vigor and mental toughness she learned from her mother blaze through in everything she does in the infantry, said 1st Sgt. Daniel Bryan, the senior enlisted leader from Cohort Company.
"Her dominance in her profession as a private is not to be expected," said Bryan. "You get a lot of Soldiers who come in and are still trying to figure things out, but Zarate-Rivas is already putting herself in a position where she can be relied upon as a young leader."
Her infantry abilities came to light tremendously during the CALFEX, said Bryan, who was in charge of the combat casualty collection point. Zarate-Rivas was assigned to help with the aid and litter team, where she had an outstanding performance.
The team had to move a casualty on a litter from one support by fire to another, where Zarate-Rivas needed little to no assistance the entire carry.
When Bryann was running back to catch up with the litter team, he said he saw his Soldiers running as fast as possible. Eventually, the team leader got weak and started slowing down and dropping the litter. Instead of helping Zarate-Rivas, Bryan needed to help him, he said.
"I have a young, infantry female Soldier here outperforming her male counterparts and even her team leader”
Overall, Zarate-Rivas loves her unit and being in the infantry. She plans on doing 20 years in the military and going to college to become an infantry officer.
"I really feel like part of the team," said Zarate-Rivas. "The people I work with have become like a second family. I have a great relationship with all the Soldiers in my squad, and they always have my back and care about me."
As expected, Zarate-Rivas's entire family is beyond proud of all her achievements and accomplishments, she said.
"My family has pictures of me everywhere in the house, especially on my dad's side," said Zarate-Rivas. "But the main person that I wanted to make proud was my mom—every single award or medal that I have received in my entire life I have given to her, including sports and ROTC."