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First female infantry platoon leader takes the road less traveled

First female infantry platoon leader takes the road less traveled
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First Lieutenant Marina Hierl has made history by becoming the first female infantry platoon leader in the Marine Corps. But if you ask her, as reported by the New York Times, she’d rather be known “as a leader, not a trailblazer because of her gender.”

As a woman who joined the Army 28 days after her 21st birthday to fly helicopters — the only combat arms positions open to women prior to the Pentagon officially lifting the restriction in 2016 — it makes me incredibly proud to see the next generation of women in the military and leadership positions not only going for it, but succeeding.

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But it’s been a long road to get to where we are today. Women have fought and died in combat for years. While women weren’t allowed to serve in specific ground combat roles, women were allowed to fight in combat or be in combat situations in a war zone. For example, women drove vehicles in convoys all over Iraq and were often vulnerable to the enemy’s complex attacks, small arms attacks and IEDs (roadside bombs). They were allowed to do this because women could be truck drivers in the military — a job in modern warfare that often can leave them on the frontline of battle. But they weren’t allowed to serve in combat designated jobs — infantry, artillery, special forces, etc. Women were allowed to serve only in support jobs, the only exception being aviation. 

 

That all changed in 2013 when then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon would lift the restriction on women serving in combat positions. That news sent the military service branches scrambling for an integration strategy that would be successful and fair — which included rethinking the way physical fitness tests were scored. (Historically, they had been rated on separate male and female score charts.) In January 2016 the ban was lifted officially, and all branches of service began implementation of the new policy.

Since then, women have enlisted in the infantry, graduated from Ranger School, graduated from Officer Candidate School and now lead ground combat troops.

And it sounds as if Lt. Hierl’s Marine Corps leadership is giving her a fair shake and giving her the guidance and mentorship that is necessary to help all young military leaders succeed. Prior to her arrival at her unit, she was selected by her now-boss to serve in his company. “If you’re the first to do something, that implies you have so many positive traits,” Capt. Neal Jones said. “And that’s not always the case when it comes to every lieutenant — including myself.” He also opted not to tell his unit that it would be receiving a new female lieutenant; he didn’t want her to be treated any differently.

Being a female in a predominantly male unit is tough. There’s no sugar coating it. I know, because I was in one. When I arrived to my troop in 2004 at 22 years old, there was only one other female pilot. And the truth is, it is hard. Someone is always watching you, testing you, waiting to see when you are going to break, fail, slip — for years. It was the hardest thing I have ever done to date. But if you want it badly enough, you don’t let any of that stop you. Gaining the respect and trust of those with whom you serve takes ample time. And it’s not given away. It must be earned.

Does it take longer for women? Likely. But it’s getting better. A major cultural shift is happening, because the men these women are serving with are seeing firsthand just how capable, professional and devoted they are. When it’s observed that they are there to do the exact same job that men are, with no special treatment, then there is no issue. If they can’t do the job, then they shouldn’t be there. When they can no longer do the job, they shouldn’t be there — the same way a man shouldn’t.

Lt. Hierl sounds like an incredible leader who has phenomenal potential and isn’t going to let anyone or anything hold her back from leading her troops to success. We need more leaders like that. And while she isn’t interested in being a trailblazer, she most certainly is one. 

Congratulations to Lt. Hierl on taking the road less traveled. It definitely isn’t the easier road, but it is the one that will take her beyond anything she thought was possible and teach her everything she needs to know about herself.

Amber Smith is former deputy assistant to the secretary of Defense for outreach and author of the best-selling book, “Danger Close.” Smith is a former combat helicopter pilot and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For more information visit OfficialAmberSmith.com.