Brig. Gen. Donna Martin reached the Army’s elite ranks in a long career that took her around the world as a military police officer. But if she could do it again, the Afghanistan and Iraq veteran allows that she would’ve liked a shot at the Army’s most prestigious positions in ground-level combat units.
Until this year, however, those units didn’t accept female soldiers.
“If I were 30 years younger, yeah,” Martin said during a visit to Sacramento on Monday. “The primary mission of the Army is to fight and win this nation’s wars. (Combat commanders) are trained differently. They’re raised differently, and that’s the path to success.”
It’s too late for her to carve a career in the infantry, but Martin today as deputy commander of Army recruiting is laying a foundation for other women to succeed in military positions that remained closed to female soldiers even as they fought and died in recent wars.
Her work follows a December order from Defense Secretary Ash Carter that signaled the Pentagon’s intent to open all positions – including Special Operations, submarines and the infantry – to female candidates.
Martin is shaping pitches to female recruits, answering questions from moms and building a network of mentors to help women succeed when they start filtering into previously male-only infantry and tank units later this year and in 2017.
So far, about 130 women have enlisted in the Army with an eye toward joining newly integrated infantry, artillery and tank units. Most of them are on their way to basic training. They’ll hit the ground in their battalions some time next year.
About 14 percent of the Army’s 1 million active-duty and reserve soldiers are women. Most women serve in noncombat positions, such as military police, medicine and logistics.
In my Hispanic heritage, women were always meant to be cleaning the house. I wanted to pave the way for women, to show that we don’t have to fall under these standards. Nothing can hold us back.
Army recruit Yesenia Gutierrez
To a woman, the new recruits say they’re eager to prove themselves in a field dominated by men.
“In my Hispanic heritage, women were always meant to be cleaning the house. I wanted to pave the way for women, to show that we don’t have to fall under these standards. Nothing can hold us back,” said Yesenia Gutierrez, 18, of Petaluma.
She ships out to basic training next week and will likely end up as a forward observer calling in artillery and airstrikes. She’s been staying in shape by hitting the gym and racing after her horse on her family’s ranch. “I just let him go and I try to catch him,” she said.
Another group of female officer candidates is expected to join infantry and armor units in junior command positions this fall. They came from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and ROTC programs around the country.
Rookie lieutenants will be platoon leaders in charge of 35 or so soldiers. Two other more experienced officer candidates may become company commanders leading groups of 150 or more troops.
“They’re the real trailblazers for the future of the Army,” Martin said.
Fifteen of the new female combat recruits are from California, including Gutierrez and Kristen Jones of Sacramento.
“I’m very excited to have this opportunity to go in and do something new, to do something that women haven’t been able to do yet,” said Jones, 18.
She went to high school in Lathrop and is on track to attend basic training in March. She picked the infantry because it’s “hands-on,” challenging work, she said.
If you look at integration in the Army, we’ve done this before. There is no reason we can’t do this.
Brig. Gen. Donna Martin
The Army’s integration of women into combat units unfolded over the past six years, gradually opening hundreds of thousands of military jobs to women in every branch of the armed forces. Carter’s December order applied to the last 10 percent – 220,000 positions – of military jobs that women were not allowed to hold.
The move appeals to some combat commanders because it gives the military a broader pool of talent to choose from for its most demanding assignments. Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit group led by retired military commanders, estimates that 70 percent of American youths are not eligible for military service because they have criminal records or they don’t meet academic or physical standards.
Carter’s order and the studies that led up to it acknowledged that women had already been serving in harm’s way in the country’s long-running wars.
Their ranks from the Central Valley include Marine Lance Cpl. Juana Navarro from the Modesto area, who was killed in Iraq 10 years ago, and Merced County’s Army Pfc. Karina Lau, who was shot down in a helicopter over Iraq in 2004.
Other milestones along the path to integration included the embrace of so-called female engagement teams by elite Special Operations units in Afghanistan. Female soldiers also joined the Green Berets, Rangers and SEALs on combat missions to gain intelligence from local women who refused to speak with male American troops.
“It was something that I’ll never forget,” said Staff Sgt. Heather Romine, 32, who served in female engagement teams with male infantry platoons during her deployments to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 82nd Airborne Division. She’s now an Army recruiter in Elk Grove. “We’re one team. We’re all together.”
Martin has appropriated the phrase “female engagement team” for her own recruiting campaign. She pulled 44 female recruiters together for special training at Fort Knox in Kentucky this year and challenged them to connect with women considering careers in the Army by sharing their personal experiences.
“We’re getting into a culture of young women who have misperceptions of what it’s like to serve,” Martin said. Her female recruiters “break down barriers” with families who have little direct experience with the military.
“If you look at integration in the Army, we’ve done this before,” she added. “There is no reason we can’t do this.”