CASPER, Wyo. — Sarah Oliver grew up with one wish.
She wanted to serve in a military combat battalion.
Trouble was the Pentagon restricted women from artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles.
That all changed in January. After years of disparity between the job choices men and women had in the military, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the combat ban for women.
In the moments before signing the law that repealed the ban, Panetta said women are “fighting and they’re dying together, and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”
Oliver is the first woman in Wyoming and third in the nation to enlist in a combat arms position in the Army National Guard. She is a private in an artillery battery, a position once closed to women.
Women can now serve in any position in the Guard.
When Brig. Gen. Kathy Wright joined the Wyoming National Guard in 1973, there were only a few jobs available to her. Today she is the first female to serve as general of the Wyoming National Guard.
“Before, you couldn’t even have a supply sergeant in the artillery battalion that was a female,” Wright said. “Now you can have that and a multilaunch rocket targeting specialist.”
Oliver, a 17-year-old Campbell County High School junior, learned how to break down an M-16 rifle on a Saturday in late March at the National Guard Armory in Casper. She loves guns and aspires to be a police officer when she’s done serving in the Guard.
“I’ve always wished for the day when women could be out on the front lines, and I finally got my wish,” she said.
Oliver exemplifies the doors that Panetta opened for women around the country. But women veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t gilding Panetta’s decision with lilies.
“I find it funny that now they lifted the ban,” said Lynn Green, an outreach specialist with the Veterans Center in Cheyenne.
She helped lead the Iraq invasion in 2003 with the Army’s 12th Charlie Company as a combat engineer. She received fire. She returned fire.
In 2004, her military occupation specialty was reclassified. She was no longer a combat engineer. Her specialty was combat support. On paper, the switch would have kept Green out of the line of fire.
“The new classification didn’t change anything,” Green said.
She was still on the front lines of the battlefield.
“We were rock stars over there,” she said. “We didn’t care that they were reclassifying. We were still the 12th Charlie.”
Air Force Capt. Mieke Bruins said it’s a misnomer that women weren’t in combat. She has served and deployed out of F.E. Warren Air Force Base for the past nine years.
Bruins is a logistics readiness officer who soldiered in convoys as a gunner and driver during her three trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. She is one of the countless military women who have served in life-threatening roles. She’s also a single mother. “If we took indirect fire and I was the truck commander, I was out there with my weapon loaded and ready to go,” she said. “It’s not like you sit and wait for everything to blow over.”
Bruins saw female medics serving wounded soldiers in fire fights and knows women Marines who often take and return fire. She’s done the same.
“We’ve been out there,” she said.
Today, Green works with women who are recovering from the hardships of wartime. She leads therapy groups that counsel women who experienced sexual, brain and other physical traumas while serving.
Women — just like men — come home with the same post-traumatic effects that are related to combat, she said.
“It’s not any different,” Green said.
Women veterans are one of the fastest growing segments of the veteran population today, said Brandy Marshall, Women Veterans Program manager at the Cheyenne VA Hospital. Eighty percent of women returning are younger than 43 years old, Marshall said, increasing the need for more gender-specific health needs. Aside from the trauma groups, there are maternity, parenting and reintegration programs.
Women currently comprise 14 percent of the military’s 1.4 million active soldiers. More than 280,000 of them have performed tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas bases. More than 150 women have died serving the country since the wars after Sept. 11, 2001.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Danielle Gill served in Afghanistan from January to July in 2012. She had to leave her 2-year-old son at home. Originally from New York, she’s lived at and deployed out of F.E. Warren Air Force Base for the past four years.
She was a security guard at a United Nations air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Gill worked with the French, Australians and the Afghan Border Police to protect the airfield.
Gill’s unit was the first responder to any rocket fire or attack on the airfield. She never had to draw a weapon and is humble about the roles she filled in her time at the base.
“Some consider getting rocketed direct combat; to us it just happens. But technically it’s not combat,” she said. “We were rocketed more than 60 times in seven months.”
Gill won the Elizabeth N. Jacobson Award for Expeditionary Excellence for participating in numerous volunteer activities while in Afghanistan. Jacobson was the first female casualty from the Air Force in the war in Iraq.
The conflicted history doesn’t diminish the sacrifices women have made in the past and will make in the future, the women say. Oliver comes from a long lineage of veterans. She’s thrilled that she will continue her family’s tradition of service.
Oliver ships to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for basic training in June. In late August she will return home and finish high school. The trials and tribulations of chemistry class are nettling her today, and life as a Guardsman offers new challenges as well. She and the other Guard enlistees were practicing their marches in late March. The sergeant called out, “left, left, left, right, left.” The band of five soldiers needed to turn right. Oliver went left.
She’ll be the sergeant leading the drills a year from now.