From Savannah to West Point to NATO, Capt. Melissa Vargas makes Army history
By NICK ROBERTSON | Savannah Morning News, Ga. | Published: November 25, 2020
SAVANNAH, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — As an outstanding student and athlete at Groves High School, Melissa Vargas had great potential to make a promising career plan.
Just a decade later, Vargas has accomplished that and much more — she's made history as the first female infantry troop commander in the U.S. Army's 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a military unit dating back to 1836. Captain Vargas now commands over 100 soldiers participating in NATO's enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Poland, a multinational force comprised of warriors from four countries.
While acknowledging the groundbreaking nature of her rise through the ranks, currently culminating with her assumption of command over the 2nd Squadron's Fox Troop in September, Vargas is modest about her achievements and focused on the mission at hand.
"I'm not doing anything special. I just happen to be in this position because I'm doing what I like to do," Vargas said. "It's not that I had to struggle more than anyone else. ... This is just me doing my job."
Vargas, a first-generation Mexican-American, grew up under humble circumstances with her family in the Savannah area, moving between a series of homes in Pooler, Port Wentworth, and Garden City. While attending Groves, she scored good grades and took AP classes, and played on the school's soccer and cross-country teams. During her senior year, she also took up weightlifting, which would prove to be invaluable for her military future.
However, when considering the opportunity to enroll at the storied West Point Military Academy in 2010, Vargas didn't think that this choice would provide more than a free college education.
"I didn't have much of an option to go to college aside from at West Point," said Vargas. "I got in thinking I'd do five years and get out, but it turns out it's the best job I could ever have."
Going from Groves to the highly regimented halls of West Point was not an easy transition for Vargas, but with ample moral support from her parents and an inner drive to succeed, she saw it through and continued to excel academically.
"It was a huge culture shock, but I didn't really have the money to go back," Vargas said, noting that she hadn't participated in the ROTC program while in high school. "It wasn't a lifestyle I was familiar with. I stayed because my momma didn't raise a quitter."
By the time she graduated from West Point in 2014, Vargas had decided to continue her Army career as a mechanized infantry company's fire-support officer, and was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas until 2016.
"Following her training in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Vargas was encouraged by her company commander to transition to the Infantry, an opportunity she was intrigued by despite such a move requiring another round of basic officer schooling."
"At times I thought it was a little bit risky what I was doing," Vargas said, but she ended up making the changeover with the additional encouragement of her first sergeant at Fort Bliss. "I switched because I enjoyed the tactical planning in the maneuver world and wanted to stay in that environment. Mentors from that environment thought I could contribute positively to the infantry branch and the soldiers that would depend on me to make sound decisions."
Another benefit of her transition from artillery to infantry in 2016 was her reassignment to Georgia’s Fort Benning, allowing her to visit family and friends back in Savannah more frequently. But in 2017, Vargas entered the most challenging phase of her military training: enrolling in Ranger School, the grueling two-month tactics and leadership course for learning to engage an enemy in close combat and direct fire battles.
Beyond the inherent rigors of the course's Benning Phase, Mountain Phase, and Swamp Phase, all involving many miles of running and crawling through muck while wearing a heavy rucksack, Vargas was also taking on another challenge with few pioneers to follow — Ranger School had only opened permanently to women in 2015, and the failure rate for all participating officers is high.
Nonetheless, Vargas said that her gender only presented minimal differences from what her male counterparts had to endure, mostly due to her differing muscular structure. Unintimidated by the physical rigors, she was more dismayed by the requirement to shave her head.
"Going through all the training, I do have to work a little bit harder," Vargas said. "I say that from a physical perspective. I'm built a little bit differently."
Vargas actually enjoyed the teamwork of Ranger School, but in late 2017 she experienced back-to-back catastrophes. A foot injury forced a pause in her training program, and soon after that her father died in an accident.
While these devastating setbacks were traumatic, with time Vargas recuperated sufficiently to restart her training program in early 2018.
"I'm glad that I ended up recycling, because it gave a couple months to physically recover and emotionally recover," Vargas said.
Vargas was one of only two women who graduated from Ranger School in her year group, but she received plenty of encouragement from the men training alongside her.
"I had a great support group with the students who were with me," Vargas said. "No one is holding anybody back. You just have to meet the same requirements and standards."
Throughout her training, Vargas was recognized by her superior officers for leadership potential, and in 2019 she was assigned to Germany, and went on to become a staff officer at Bavaria's Rose Barracks.
After achieving the rank of captain, Vargas was selected to lead Fox Troop in September, and is now managing training and logistics for several platoons, overseeing exercises in light-armored vehicles in the rolling hills and forests of Poland.
"I like assessing and evaluating and talking tactics," Vargas said, adding that her subordinate troopers are regarding her command with utmost respect. "I've had nothing but support up to this point."
Beyond relishing the work she does, Vargas also enjoys her deployment abroad for the opportunities available during military leave to travel around varied European countries with her husband Brian, who is also in the Army; the two met soon before she began Ranger School. The couple married in November of 2019, and have visited Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and other countries.
"Anytime we get in an argument, he always says, 'Remember who loved you when you were bald,'" Vargas says with a laugh.
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