PABRADE, Lithuania — They wear the same uniforms. They work, live, and train with them. They even communicate using the same jargon and acronyms that most people outside their organization wouldn't be able to comprehend. Yet, there isn't a single day that goes by in which they don't notice that they are different from the rest.
They put time and effort into their teams to ensure they are all working towards the same objective and that their tracks are moving in the same direction. Nonetheless, their journey is sometimes more challenging because they also carry the responsibility of being pioneers and pathfinders. They travel in terrains that very few like them have conquered, and precisely for that reason, they are trying to facilitate the passage for those that might follow.
In 2016, all combat positions were made available to women in accordance with the Army's Soldier 2020 gender integration plan.
U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Emily Sarah Alvarado, 1st. Lt. Kimberly Kelly, and Staff Sgt. Iris Barajas, all three tank commanders assigned to the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, belong to a small—but growing—group of female Soldiers who have accepted the challenge to become part of the combat-arms branches and combat-arms military occupational specialties within the U.S. Army.
Integrating and leading in a traditionally all-male field has presented many challenges.
For Barajas, a native of Yuba City, California, even though she grew up among four brothers and was used to getting dirty and playing rough with the boys, she thinks her most significant obstacle in becoming a female tank commander was adapting to the environment.
"In the beginning, it was hard being a female in an MOS historically composed of only males," she said. "For a long time, I was the only female in my company, making it difficult for some NCOs to mentally make the transition and accept that there would now be more of us among their ranks."
Being part of the first wave of the gender integration plan into the combat-arms field also put them under additional pressure to perform well.
"I would be lying if I said that I didn't feel some pressure," said Alvarado, who originally had no intentions to join a combat-arms branch but gave it more thought after one of her ROTC sergeants asked her if she wouldn't be interested in going into combat arms and being part of the first wave of females in that field.
"After researching more into those branches, I realized that not only I would love to do the things that they did, but that I was pretty confident I had it in me to make it happen," she said. "So, if I'm being frank, I did feel the pressure to perform well because I wanted to represent and be part of the group of females who would demonstrate that women could not only survive but that we could also thrive in this type of environment."
Yet, for Kelly, a 24-year-old platoon leader, the pressure she felt was more internal.
"Since the beginning of my military career, I've had to work hard and be resilient. When I first joined the ROTC program, I wasn't a contracted cadet, so I had to fight and prove myself to get a scholarship and a position," said the 24-year-old native of Houston, Texas. "Coming into combat arms, I felt pressured because I knew I always have to put more effort than anybody around me to get a spot."
Nonetheless, they all agree that being part of that first wave of gender integration into combat arms meant that sometimes it was difficult finding other more experience female leaders that could serve as their mentors. Having someone who shares their gender with whom they can relate, talk to, and ask questions could greatly benefit those women who decide to enter this career field.
Alvarado recalls how while attending her Basic Officer Leaders Course, her instructor asked the class to create their 5-year-plan. While talking to her friend, they both started to wonder how they could build into their plans of having children and starting a family while simultaneously serving as armor officers. "You can't necessarily be pregnant on a tank. So we decided to ask our instructor to see if he could help us figure it out. Not surprisingly, he couldn't give us a straight answer because that was something he never had to deal with before," she said. "That's a complicated question that very few people could answer because even fewer people have had to go through it. Situations like this are why it's so important to have access to mentors who have dealt with similar situations and are willing to help you figure out how to overcome said obstacles."
Alvarado, Kelly, and Barajas might not have found a solution to all the obstacles they had faced on this journey, but they found something that certainly helped.
In simple words: putting in the work.
"I have a strong work ethic, so I made sure that regardless of the task, I was putting in the work and always giving it my best," said Barajas. "I wanted to show them that I deserved to be there as much as anybody else. So I kept pushing myself to prove I was as capable as any of them."
Testament of her work is that she made the rank of staff sergeant and became a tank commander in just her first four years of service.
"By being vulnerable and demonstrating my willingness to learn from my crew, specifically from my NCOs, I gained the respect of my Soldiers," added Kelly. "I showed them that I wanted to do this, and they can see that's true because every chance I get, you can find me in the motor pool getting my hands dirty and working with them on the tanks."
Alvarado shares a similar view with her two fellow tank commanders.
"This is a learning experience, so one is bound to make mistakes in the process. But as long as you own up to those mistakes and every day you work hard and give your best to become proficient at your job, your Soldiers will have your back," she said. "Ironically, at the end of the day, you might even realize that it's no longer about you. You might realize that you are putting in all of this effort to be a better version of yourself for them so that you can lead and mentor them in the right direction."
The road to becoming a cohesive team is built upon hard work and mutual respect.
While gazing at the ground, Barajas reflected on her journey. With both her eyes focused on one point, she said, "being a female in a predominantly male field, it's rough, it's definitely rough."
Then she raised her eyes, and, looking at her M1A2 Abrams tank, she added, "but you get to build a bond with your team that you wouldn't get anywhere else besides being in this job. Without even realizing it, you all become a family, taking care of each other as if you were siblings. They are my brothers, and I am their sister."
"It's not a male versus female thing," said Alvarado. "In reality, most of our male counterparts want to see us succeed, and they will be there to lift us up if we ever need them. Just as we would for them."
However, sometimes that's not enough, she explained. There are things that you can only talk about with someone who has experienced it firsthand. As a woman, there are ingenious tricks and tips on surviving in a field environment that only another woman who had to go through all that could teach you.
All three agreed that the Army would greatly benefit if more female Soldiers got into the combat-arms branches and combat-arms military occupational specialties.
"Not only do we want, but we also need more females in combat arms because diversity is one of the things that makes the Army and our teams stronger," Barajas said. "As one of the first and currently few female tank commanders, I think that with everything we have accomplished, we have already set foot in the door for those coming behind us."
Kelly also agrees that there should be more female tankers. Nevertheless, she clarifies that the armor career field isn't for everyone.
"I don't think there should be more female tankers just because they're females," she explained. "I think there should be more female tankers if they want to do it. Maintaining a tank requires a lot of time and work, but it doesn't feel as bad when you are passionate about what you do."
With a smile on her face, Alvarado added that she was having the time of her life.
"As a five-foot-one fairly petite female, I get to command such a giant beast as an Abrams tank, and I sure love it. I really love every second of it," she said. "I would like to tell all those females contemplating joining combat arms or the armor career field that they should absolutely do it."
The pathfinders have done their job. Those who come after them need only follow their track marks, and their journey should be a little smoother. At least three—but probably more—female tank commanders will be receiving them with open arms.
"I promise there are more people on your side rooting for you than against you," said Alvarado. "The only thing you need to do is put in the work and become proficient and confident in your capabilities."
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