MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Army Private Kelly Elizabeth Wilson, 18, left her home in Selma, for basic training last week and by doing so, she became a part of history.
Wilson is Alabama's first female to sign up for an Army military combat role – something that has been barred to women for centuries. That's all in the past now, after U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced at the end of last year that women could now serve in all combat positions.
Carter's announcement reverses a 1994 rule that restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles and who will now be allowed to serve in more than 200,000 new roles, including, Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Marine Corps and Air Force parajumpers.
It has been a topic of controversy among officials with parties of equal opportunity facing arguments on compromised standards, unit cooperation and safety.
“When I became secretary of defense, I made a commitment to building America’s force of the future,” Carter told reporters. “In the 21st century that requires drawing strength from the broadest possible pool of talent. This includes women.”
Hundreds of Military Operation Specialties (MOSs) were opened to women in January and by April, the rest will become available.
The team at the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion stationed at Gunter in Montgomery, helped Wilson renegotiate her military contract in January after she found out she could serve in a combat role.
She didn't realize she was the first. Wilson simply yearned for a challenge.
"I like things like that because they challenge me both mentally and physically," Wilson said. "I want something to engage me as much as I engage it ... it was definitely God's hand directing me."
Wilson enlisted as a combat engineer and shipped out for active duty on Jan. 23.
Before she did, the Recruiting Battalion commander Lt. Col. Keisha R. Douglass had to speak with her.
"She was just so excited about it, that she got me excited for her," Douglass said. "She was very pleased with the change, because it was something that interested her ... immediately when it became open, she wanted to change her contract."
Douglass and her team are responsible for recruitment for the Alabama and Florida panhandle area. She is helping get the word out to families and interested women that more options are available to them.
It has been a long time coming, she said.
"In the years that I've been in the military, women have expressed wishing that they could choose other jobs," Douglass said. "It's been a stigma and perception that women can't do the same jobs as men, but I would say, well look at the women who have already made it through Ranger School recently. It isn't something that's impossible, but do you want it and how bad do you want it?"
Wilson wants it badly. There's no going back, only forward and she's trusting in her Christian faith to get her there.
"There's no other option," Wilson said. "I'm relying on God, because if you don't draw your strength from him, you're going to fail in every task you do,"
Wilson is looking at eventually pursuing a career in the combat Sapper program. Sapper is an elite course similar to Ranger School for infantry, but Sapper is for army engineers. It's physically demanding and trains small teams to move through water and tough terrain in order to blow up obstacles or clear mines.
Douglass assured that standards for these elite courses and other combat positions will remain unchanged, and that women must meet the same physical requirements as their male counterparts.
Everyone must pass the basic standards for entry into the military, including the ASVAB and the medical screening. The 28-day Sapper course requires more, including a 500-yard swim in 35 minutes, with full gear and running while carrying a rubber boat weighing several hundred pounds over their heads, as examples.
All that is done in extreme weather conditions, limited food, supply and sleep.
It might hard, but Douglass encourages everyone to follow their dreams.
"Work hard and don't be intimidated by the hard stuff," Douglass said. "If it's really what you want to do, then you will succeed and that's with anything in life.
According to USA Today data, 9,000 women have already earned the Combat Action Badge for actions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1,000 women have been killed or wounded in that fighting.
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