The US Army certifies its first woman combat engineer

Vermont National Guard Spc. Skylar Anderson calls the distinction she holds a 'big eye-opener.'

Wilson Ring/AP
In this Dec. 3, 2015, photo, Vermont National Guard Spc. Skylar Anderson, the first female in the Army to qualify as a combat engineer, poses at Camp Johnson in Colchester, Vt. Anderson said she didn't know when she started the training course to become a combat engineer that she would be the first female to graduate. The military has opened up a number of combat jobs to women that were once reserved for men only.

She is ready for the battlefield, and for the history books. Newly minted combat engineer Vermont National Guard Spc. Skylar Anderson is the first woman to hold the job, a distinction she wasn't even aware she held, now that the US armed services is allowing women to hold every combat job across all branches of the military.

"I knew I was going to be one of the first, but I didn't know I was going to be THE first," Ms. Anderson says in an interview with The Associated Press.

"She's a tremendous soldier," Command Sgt. Major Alan Grinsteinner says of Anderson to the AP. "She came up here, she did what she was supposed to, she passed every test, she was not granted any specialties, she did exactly what all her male counterparts did."

Sgt. Grinsteinner, who is the commandant of the combat engineer school at the 164th Training Institute operated by the North Dakota guard, as well as his fellow instructors, opted not to tell Anderson and her fellow trainees that she was the first woman to attend the course until the 16-day training had nearly concluded.  

Anderson, who is 20 and a junior at the University of Vermont, tells the AP it was a "big eye-opener" when her instructors told her that she was the first woman to complete the course that certifies her to work alongside combat troops, helping to solve technical problems in battle and challenge enemy progress. 

According to Grinsteinner, modern warfare, particularly the last 14 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, tasks combat engineers with keeping roadways clear, which often includes disarming roadside bombs.

"The opportunity to actually go overseas and fight for what we're supposed to in the Army, it would be an honor, it would be something that I'd really look forward to," Anderson says.

Anderson's achievement comes just days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered all branches of the military to open all combat jobs to servicewomen. In August, three women passed the Army's notoriously tough Ranger School. The combat exclusion policy that was lifted on Thursday will allow them to actually serve in the Special Operations Forces as Rangers. 

Anna Mulrine reported for The Christian Science Monitor last week that when Secretary Ash made his announcement, servicewomen across all branches of the US armed services celebrated. But work remains. 

Lifting the combat exclusion policy is the “first chapter” in equality of opportunity for women in the Marine Corps, Colonel [Kate] Germano says. The next chapter will be “looking at how we recruit and train women.”

As it stands now, the Marines segregate men and women during basic training. It’s the only service that does this. “The standards are different, and the expectations are different,” she says. 

This must change, many Marines say, and the achievement of women at places like Army Ranger School offer a way forward. 

“That helped shift the perspective on what’s achievable,” Germano says. By taking such models of recruiting and training women and applying it to the Marine Corps, “We’re going to see women do things no one ever thought they could do.”

The White House is currently considering whether to make women register for the draft, and the US Court of Appeals will hear a case on Tuesday that challenges the male-only draft, The New York Times reports.

For Anderson, she says as a civilian, she hopes to become an equine veterinarian. For her life in military service, she plans to stay with the National Guard, and wait for her unit to be called to active duty.

"It's time to step up and not hide in the shadows," she says.

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