When an inmate riot erupted at a military prison camp outside Kabul, Staff Sgt. Cyndi Baltezore noticed that detainees hurled blows on male and female soldiers with equal ferocity.
She also saw that it took troops of both genders rushing toward danger to quell the revolt.
“Women getting punched in the face, and getting up and getting control of these detainees,” Baltezore, 32, said. “I saw it firsthand that women are definitely capable of doing what the men did.”
Eight years after that brawl, Baltezore is at the front of the Defense Department’s biggest test of whether she and other advocates of gender integration in combat units are right. She’s the first woman to earn a spot in a front-line California National Guard infantry unit, a position that was open to men exclusively until last year.
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Her opportunity follows a December 2015 order from former Defense Secretary Ash Carter that opened all military assignments to women, from tanks to Special Operations.
Since then, the Army has seeded active-duty infantry, armor and Special Operations units with experienced female officers and noncommissioned officers.
Two female infantry captains are in the fast-deploying 82nd Airborne Division. One female officer in March joined the 75th Ranger Regiment, a prestigious and physically demanding Special Operations unit. Others are in the tanks and heavy fighting vehicles used by the 4th Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
In another milestone, 18 women last week became the first female enlisted recruits to graduate from infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga.
“This is a big deal. You are making f---ing history,” their drill sergeant told them before their graduation ceremony, according to report in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
Baltezore feels that sense of history, too.
She joined the National Guard 14 years ago with an eye on serving in a tank. At the time, tanks were male-only machines. She chose a career path as a military police officer instead, hoping to get near the front lines.
That choice took her to Afghanistan in 2009 and Iraq in 2010.
Since the Revolution
In both places, she saw female soldiers accompany all-male infantry platoons on missions. Women worked as medics, bomb disposal technicians and cultural interpreters – exposing themselves to snipers and hidden explosives in the same manner as their male counterparts.
In 2013, an Army nurse from Baltezore’s hometown of San Diego was killed on a Special Operations mission attacking a booby-trapped compound in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province. She died trying to help a soldier who stepped on a mine.
To Baltezore, Capt. Jennifer Moreno’s sacrifice demonstrated that women already were serving on some of the military’s most dangerous missions even though policies technically prohibited them from joining combat units.
“Women have always been in combat, in the Civil War, the Revolution and the world wars. They’ve been there in some sort of aspect,” she said. “With the doors opening to women in the infantry and artillery, we can be recognized as combat fighters, and that’s important.”
Baltezore didn’t think of herself as an infantry candidate until last year, when she attended a conference where a veteran infantry sergeant major told an audience that women should not serve in ground-level combat units. He suggested gender integration might disrupt crucial relationships in small units that must prepare to go to war.
She respected his experience but reached a different conclusion.
“That upset me because I’m the type of person that if you tell me I can’t do something, I want to do it,” she said.
She applied three times to the course she’d have to pass to move from military police to infantry. In April, she cleared the hurdle. Her physical tests included dragging a dummy that weighed 270 pounds, heading out on a timed 12-mile march while hauling up to 100 pounds and working with the grenades and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.
Two other women – one from Idaho and one from Colorado – also graduated from the program, becoming the first women in their states to qualify for infantry positions in the National Guard. Around the country, 12 women are serving in National Guard infantry units.
“We’ve been integrating women into combat arms and combat for many years – aviation, (military police), engineers,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Menard, the highest ranking enlisted soldier in the California National Guard. “My only concern is whether they can shoot straight.”
What will Trump do?
Although her command has encouraged her, Baltezore understands the doubts she heard at the conference are held by some veterans, military families and Pentagon officials.
Carter’s successor, former Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, consistently expressed misgivings about integrating women in infantry units before President Trump appointed him to be defense secretary. He worried about morale and unit cohesion.
Mattis may still hold that view, but he told senators in January that “I have no plans to oppose women serving in any aspect of our military.”
His previous statements, and ones from Trump on the campaign trail, are among the reasons that civil rights attorneys have not withdrawn a long-running lawsuit against the Defense Department that they filed on behalf of three California female veterans in 2012. It sought to end the ban on women in combat units, arguing that it hindered the careers of female troops and denied women training that would help them on the battlefield.
Because combat units are the most prestigious in the military, barring women from serving in them “sends a clear message to the world that women are not capable of serving their country to the same extent as men,” the lawsuit says.
In January, Judge Edward Chen declined to dismiss the case, citing the potential for a change in Pentagon policy on gender integration from the Trump administration. Lawyers from the Defense Department and the American Civil Liberties Union are due in federal court in San Francisco in July for a conference.
“Thus far the threat of the reinstatement of a categorical ban has not materialized, which is a good thing,” said Elizabeth Gill, a senior attorney at the ACLU.
The California National Guard needs more female officers and sergeants to apply for combat arms positions before it can accept new female recruits. The Army has a “leaders first” policy that sends at least two female officers and noncommissioned officers to combat units before allowing them to accept young women coming out of basic training.
Baltezore serves in the headquarters company for the 1st Battalion, 185th Infantry Regiment. Another noncommissioned officer, Staff Sgt. Alexandra Travison, recently qualified to join a Richmond-based National Guard artillery battalion. She’s the first woman to earn a spot in a California National Guard cannon unit.
Both units would need another woman to join their ranks before accepting newly enlisted female soldiers.
“I’m excited to see more females come in and let them know ‘Hey, look, if I can do it, you can do it,’ ” said Travison, 34.
At home, Baltezore works for the National Guard year-round on the state counter-drug task force. She lives in Sacramento with her wife Julia.
They married a year ago, another milestone for Baltezore that would have been off-limits at the start of her career when the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barred gay and lesbian troops from serving openly.
That policy ended in late 2011 and was quickly followed by official recognition for gay troops and their families.
“I’ve been a minority most of my military career. I know we can get past this sort of cloudy fog of war within our ranks when it comes to women joining combat arms,” she said. “They can do it. I know they want to do it. They want to be here to fight alongside our brothers.”
She once thought of her move to the infantry as a personal challenge for herself. But as her date with the infantry school neared, she noticed that her feelings about her goal had changed.
“I came to realize the responsibility that would be mine, being the first and leading other females,” she said. “I put my whole heart into it.”