By Sheryl NixMarch 11, 2010
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska -- National Women's History Month highlights the fact that throughout every major U.S. military conflict women have blazed trails for modern Soldiers with their military service.
Today women make up approximately 14 percent of the active Army and serve in more than 90 percent of all Army occupations, according to Army statistics, but that has not always been the case.
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc. compiled a record of women's service in conflicts dating back to the American Revolutionary War and found that women have served in many different capacities over the years. From cooks and saboteurs in the Revolution to 19th century nurses and 20th century clerks, mechanics and photographers, women have made a difference in war and peacetime military efforts.
The Army has been the service of choice for many women and nowhere is the pioneering spirit more evident than in Army aviation. While the Women's Army Corps and the Women Airforce Service Pilots from WWII receive credit for breaking through many of the military gender barriers, it was not until 1974 that the first woman became an Army helicopter pilot.
Fort Wainwright's 16th Combat Aviation Brigade is home to numerous women who have chosen Army aviation and currently bridge the gap between those who paved the way before them and those who will fly over their footsteps.
Maj. DeAnna L. Bridenback, commander, C Company, 123rd Aviation Intermediate Maintenance, 16th CAB, joined the Army in 1988 as a cargo specialist, serving in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm a few years later. Bridenback has a private pilot's license, so going to college, joining Army ROTC and then becoming a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot was a natural progression.
"I've been flying since I was 16," she said. "I actually won a scholarship with the local airport and started flying fixed wing airplanes then and I just absolutely took to it and love being up there - the bird's eye view. I just really thoroughly enjoy flying."
Although flying is in her blood and seems to run in her family - her younger sister is an Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft commander and pilot - Bridenback doesn't fly regularly in her current position.
"While I love flying, it is not what I do on an everyday basis," she explained. "The reason why I do what I do is for the Soldiers; to take care of Soldiers. As a commander, it is really and truly all about taking care of Soldiers - making sure that they're trained and fit and ready to answer the call."
Caring for Soldiers and leading by example garner the majority of her attention these days. "I want to be a good role model," she said.
A 2005 Women in Aviation Conference provided Bridenback an opportunity to meet some of her heroes and role models. "When you look back at all the great, heroic women, I have to say that the women who inspire me are the WACs themselves. Just to see those (women) - they were pioneers in our field - was just absolutely inspiring."
She is also inspired by other women in aviation serving with her today; women like Chief Warrant Officer Flor Armendariz, battalion aviation maintenance officer, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th CAB, who has served in Army aviation for two decades.
"I joined the Army to be in the aviation field," Armendariz said. "I wanted to stay around Soldiers so I chose to become a maintenance technical warrant in aviation so I could continue mentoring, coaching and teaching Soldiers."
Her mother and two aunts set the bar for her at a young age and showed Armendariz what mentally and physically strong and wise women looked like. "I'm the only one from (my) family who joined the service," she said. "That was definitely a proud moment."
Army aviation has come a long way since she first came in and served as the only woman in her unit. "I have definitely seen changes throughout my 20 years in the Army," she said. "And now to see a woman in aviation is nothing unusual."
1st Lt. Heather Cobb, maintenance platoon leader, C/123rd, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2007 and has been a Black Hawk pilot since completing flight school in May 2009. She is very aware that the women who served before her helped to shape her path.
Their legacy "is important because it has made my job so much easier because I don't have to fight like people in the past have; like Chief (Armendariz) probably had to do when she was first getting into the Army, proving herself day after day that she is not just a woman, she's a Soldier," Cobb said.
And even though she is fairly new to the Army, Cobb is already thinking about the legacy she will leave behind.
"My younger sister is graduating from West Point this year," she said. "I think about her all the time and what I can do set an example for her and (help) her appreciate being in the military, also."
These women think of themselves as Soldiers first and women second. "I just have always seen myself as a Soldier," Bridenback said. "That's what I am first and foremost. I'm a firm believer that you shouldn't expect to be handed things just because you're you. No, you've got to work hard. You've got to understand what the systems are and put in the effort and if you do that and keep an open mind to learning (you'll succeed)."
Even still, she said it's important to commemorate the work of so many who went before them, taking on adversity and hardships to change the world.
"I think that there are a lot of incredible individuals who make a difference and change the course of history for the masses and so it's important to reflect on everyone's heritage really," Bridenback said. "So I think it's important to look back and pause and think about those who came before you and all of the contributions they have made. A lot of them were trailblazers."
"They faced incredible adversity ... and they've made a difference in America and around the world."