STARKE, Fla., June 9, 2011 -- When Staff Sgt. Jessica Ray came into the Florida National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery, she followed closely behind the first females to come into the 14S, or Avenger crewmember, Military Occupational Specialty. Now, four years later, Ray can claim a first of her own -- she recently became the first female to graduate from the Avenger Master Gunner course.“It’s a great accomplishment in my career,” said Ray, who works full time for the Florida National Guard in Sarasota, Fla. “I’m proud to be called a master gunner and to be able to take that knowledge to my Soldiers.”The Avenger Master Gunner course is designed to train a noncommissioned officer to function as the unit’s master of gunnery and the commander’s gunnery technical advisor. During the six-week course, Soldiers are challenged through three phases of training covering detailed technical knowledge of the weapons system and in depth planning and execution of training.“In the beginning it was very long nights,” said Ray. “But the hard work does pay off.”Ray’s unit is currently conducting annual training at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Fla., and the unit’s master gunners are crucial to the success of the unit’s training and qualification on the ranges. This training at the ranges also gives the soldiers the opportunity to use the skills they’ve been training on throughout the year and gives them the chance to get their hands on the real weapons systems during the live fire exercises.“When we do ranges like this, we’re able to implement all the year of hard work,” said Ray.Ray deployed with the 3-265th to the National Capital Region in 2009-2010 to provide air defense for the nation’s capital. The Florida National Guard regularly supports this mission and it provides important leadership experience for noncommissioned officers.“Staff Sergeant Ray will bring that technical ability to the unit,” said Capt. Michael Wetter, commander of Battery A, 3-265th. “We’re tactically already very well trained, but Master Gunners can provide more in-depth training on the weapons system.”The Avenger system operates with a crew of three, not because three people are required to operate it, but because the responsibility of the mission, especially in the Nation’s capital, requires an experienced and highly trained noncommissioned officer to make the final decision if it is necessary to engage a potential target.“It’s critical that we have that experienced NCO (noncommissioned officer) Corps,” said Maj. Chris Dillon, the battalion operations officer. “That person will be the last person to give the order to engage.”The Florida National Guard has led the way in the Avenger Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS, -- sending the first females through the MOS course, the first Guardsman through the Master Gunner course and now the first female through the Master Gunner course. The 3rd Battalion currently has more trained master gunners than any other unit in the Army.“It’s great that females are moving up and able to show we can do the job just as well as men,” said Ray.