SubscribeAvailable Now
Specialist Mariana Duran-Montoya. Photograph by Morgan Rachel Levy

On the Front Line: Embedded With American Female Combat Soldiers in Afghanistan

This past spring, the U.S. Army sent a gender-integrated howitzer crew to a war zone for one of the first times. We embedded with the Fort Carson unit on its historic mission in Afghanistan.

|

More than 200 bird species live on Cheyenne Mountain’s eastern flank, where miles of open space transition from grassland to montane forest at the southern reaches of the Front Range. On the afternoon of March 8, though, not a single note of birdsong can be heard—not the chirp of a black-billed cuckoo, nor the thunk of the downy woodpecker, nor even a screech from the area’s resident red-tailed hawks. Instead, the idyllic scene is soundtracked by the jackhammering of an M240B machine gun squeezing out five- to seven-round bursts.

“Fuck,” Specialist Jordyn Wallace says. “It’s jammed again.” Wallace sighs, pushing herself up from where she’d been lying in the dirt. First Lieutenant James Vigil walks over to examine the weapon. The 27-pound piece of steel and titanium has been acting up all afternoon.

“Take a break, Wallace,” Vigil says, setting the weapon to the side. Wallace shrugs and joins a few other soldiers waiting in the shade for their turns to shoot. Some spit chewing tobacco into plastic soda bottles. Others scuff their boots in the dirt. All of them are members of the Second Battalion, 12th field artillery regiment (2-12 FA)—part of the First Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Usually these soldiers support infantry troops from miles away with powerful M777s, also known as howitzers. Today, the Fort Carson soldiers are practicing their machine-gunning skills.

Captain Charles Range, commander of the 2-12 FA’s Alpha Battery, watches the soldiers from several yards away. He reads the boredom in their body language and approaches them. “Hey, so you know I love you, right?” he says. Some of the soldiers groan. Whenever their commander begins this way, they know whatever is coming next isn’t good. “I know this kind of sucks, but prepare yourselves for a long day,” Range continues. “We’re going to stay here practicing all day, and we’re going to be here tonight, too. I want you to be able to shoot a machine gun in the dark.” More groans. A few heads drop.

It’s late afternoon, and the soldiers are exhausted. Early that morning, most of them had endured the Army Physical Fitness Test: two minutes of pushups and two minutes of situps, followed by a two-mile run. Although there had been frost on the grass when they sweated their ways through the biannual test at 6 a.m., by afternoon it had become a sunny 63 degrees. They’ve been out in full kit—long pants, long sleeves, ballistic helmets, and flak vests—for hours.

“Look, I told you: I love you,” Range says. “But we’re going to Afghanistan—and I don’t want you to die.”

Alpha Battery’s First Platoon leader, Lieutenant Vigil, was not surprised to learn his unit would be flying into Uruzgan Province at night. The airfield at the forward operating base (or FOB) where they were headed sits about a mile from the post’s gate, and movement is safer in the dark. Vigil also knew the area had been getting hit with mortars and rockets; it was not uncommon to see tracer rounds cutting through the sky. This was Taliban territory. Infantry soldiers would secure the airfield before they landed.

Advertisement

The oldest of three siblings, Vigil is protective by nature. The Colorado native had become the leader of First Platoon only two months before Alpha Battery deployed, but he’d grown close to his soldiers quickly. It’s them he’s thinking about as their aircraft hugs Uruzgan’s undulating terrain, climbing and rolling with every curve of the earth. The plane flies with no lights. Lights are targets. Some of the aircraft that land here are big enough to carry five howitzers, yet the most you can hope to see from the ground is a dark spot moving across the sky.

Once the plane touches down and the doors open, it’s Go! Go! Go! until everyone is off the aircraft. As the soldiers assemble outside, the clicks of magazines being loaded and rounds being chambered in M4s bounce off the runway. The soldiers adjust their night-vision goggles. Someone familiar with the route takes point, and as each person steps off the tarmac and into the gravel, he or she gets a shoulder tap and a number. Seven, eight, nine…. If everything goes according to plan, there should be the same number of shoulder taps at the gate on the way in.

Even on a moonless night and without the aid of night-vision gear, the glow of Venus and the Milky Way provides enough light to see the rebar, rocks, and jackal droppings that litter the ground. It’s a creepy kind of beautiful—one wrapped in the acoustics of boots crunching on gravel, metal clinking against Kevlar, and heavy breathing. Soldiers keep close together on the brisk walk in; this is not a place you want to get lost. “Zombie land,” the troops call it, and for good reason. Along the way, they pass the ghosts of former FOBs: guard towers, barbed wire, crumbling concrete walls.

While not as well known to Americans as its southern neighbors, Kandahar and Helmand, the mostly mountainous province of Uruzgan has had a bloody recent history. The Soviets battled mujahideen here in the 1980s before the Taliban wrested control in the 1990s. In 2001, Hamid Karzai led a pivotal uprising against the local Taliban in the province’s capital. Following that victory, he marched on to claim Kandahar and eventually a decadelong tenure as the country’s president. At the height of the war, when money, troops, and weapons were flowing into Afghanistan, Uruzgan held one of the largest FOBs in the country. But as mission goals shifted and NATO forces handed more control over to the Afghan National Army, the number of troops in Uruzgan dwindled. When Alpha Battery arrived this past spring, its job—like the rest of the coalition forces’—was to help support the NATO mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan army.

The nine-month deployment is a first for many of the Fort Carson soldiers. And, in many ways, it’s a first for the Army, too: Alpha Battery’s ranks contain some of America’s first female cannon crew members, a combat arms position not open to women until recently. When Wallace and the other female cannoneers in the 2-12 FA unit—among them, Eun Jaing and Mariana Duran-Montoya—arrived to fight on Afghan soil, it marked one of the first times the Army had deployed gender-integrated howitzer crews to a war zone.

Advertisement

Jordyn Wallace almost never made it out of her hometown of Castle Hayne, North Carolina. The youngest of three, Wallace had military aspirations from the time she was big enough to chase her two older brothers down the aisles of the tiny river town’s Piggly Wiggly. “When I was in elementary school, they asked me what I wanted to be, and I said I wanted to be an Army man,” Wallace says.

Then came adolescence, and with it the pull of very un-Army-like influences. Castle Hayne sits in the shadow of Wilmington, North Carolina, a city as well known for its opioid problem as for its ship-building and boardwalk: Nearly 12 percent of residents abuse opioids, a rate higher than that of any other American city. Wallace lost a lot of friends. “It was a bad environment,” the 23-year-old says, “and I wasn’t necessarily going down the right path.” So she reset her course: She doubled up on math, English, and science classes in high school and graduated early. Although she had just turned 18, Wallace had already visited an Army recruiter and was set to enlist. She planned to go into the military police.

In the fall of 2014, while Wallace waited at a red light, a truck slammed into the back of her BMW going 60 miles per hour. She regained consciousness briefly in the ambulance and remembers nothing more until she woke up in a hospital. Wallace suffered a concussion, but that wasn’t what would hold up her enlistment in the Army. The driver had been texting, and the state was pressing charges. Wallace was involved in the suit, in part because she needed the driver to pay for her medical bills, and no one can join the military with an open court case—even if they’re the victim.

Wallace took a job at a garage door company while she waited for the court’s decision. She lost confidence in her future with the Army. In early 2016, as she was getting out of her car in a grocery store parking lot, she spotted an Army recruiter card on the ground. Wallace took it as a sign and contacted the recruiter that day. “I didn’t even know combat arms were open to women when I called,” she says.

A lot had changed in the previous couple of years. The Department of Defense (DOD) had announced it was ending the combat exclusion policy—a rule barring women from joining combat arms positions such as infantry, artillery, and armor—on January 24, 2013, but it had given the military three years to implement the change.

Advertisement

In many ways, it was a semantic, rather than seismic, shift. Women have been involved in combat operations since the Revolutionary War: Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man and fought with the Continental Army, taking two musket balls to the thigh near Tarrytown, New York; Margaret Cochran Corbin was the first woman awarded a military pension after her husband, an artillery soldier, was killed near present-day Manhattan and she stepped in to take his place at the cannon, ultimately being shot in the arm, chest, and jaw. Similar examples exist throughout the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, and beyond.

By the mid-1990s, the DOD had repealed the laws preventing women from serving in air and naval combat units. (The Coast Guard integrated women into all roles, including hostage rescue and interdiction, in the 1970s.) Women could be combat pilots and serve aboard combat ships, but the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule still barred women from “engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons while being exposed to hostile fire and a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel. Direct ground combat takes place well forward on the battlefield while locating and closing with the enemy to defeat them by fire, maneuver, or shock effect.”

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—with their blurry front lines—intensified, the discrepancy between what was technically allowed for women in war zones and what was actually happening became more apparent. It was impossible to deny the fact that women, regardless of their assigned jobs, were very much involved in “engaging an enemy on the ground.” “Team Lioness,” for instance, was composed of Army women (many of whom came from an engineering battalion) attached to Marine units. When the Marine squads went on patrol, the female soldiers went with them to search and sometimes calm Iraqi women. They took part in multiple gunfights; at least one woman in Lioness killed a combatant. None of the Team Lioness members died in battle, but since 2003, more than 165 American women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 1,000 have been wounded, and over 9,000 have been awarded the Combat Action Badge. Clearly, the battlefield had changed.

Other changes were happening in the United States. An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that included Marine Captain Colleen Farrell and helicopter pilot and Distinguished Flying Cross recipient MJ Hegar—who this month is attempting to unseat U.S. Representative John Carter (R-Texas)—challenged the ban on women in combat roles. The suit cited, among other things, a lack of career advancement and promotion opportunities for women. The old rulebook, the women argued, no longer applied.

In 2011, Congress mandated that the DOD conduct a review of its combat exclusion policy; two years later, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced plans to rescind the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule. (Some exceptions, like for missile crews, already existed.) “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, or gender, or sexual orientation,” he said in a press conference. In December 2015, his successor, Ashton B. Carter, declared that all jobs—without exception—would be opened to women. The first field artillery cannoneer positions became available to enlisted women in January 2016. Wallace walked into the Castle Hayne recruiter’s office one month later.

Advertisement

Roughly 20 miles south of the city of Kandahar, the province’s northern steppes stop abruptly at the edge of a red sand dune field that extends all the way into Iran. A precipitous drop from rocky terrain signals the beginning of the Registan Desert. The massive landscape is visible from space as a big, tan thumbprint in the middle of southern Afghanistan. There is nothing gentle about this arid, nearly 58,000-square-mile plateau: Temperatures can crest 120 degrees in the summer, and the region gets less than six inches of precipitation annually. Strong, sustained winds have buried more than 100 villages in sand as the Registan marches farther west every year, slowly cannibalizing agricultural lands on its northwestern border. In the middle of this harsh emptiness, in Helmand Province, those same winds wreak havoc on the guns of Alpha Battery’s Second Platoon.

On a July evening this past summer, the soldiers of Second Platoon prepare a howitzer for a mission. The wind is blowing at 30 knots, foiling ammo chief Thomas Crispell’s efforts to keep the pages of his notebook still. Sand is everywhere: hair, eyes, ears, teeth. “We’ve never shot in wind like this,” a soldier says from behind the gun. While the crew can adjust the aim for the wind, such strong gusts send grit swirling. Visibility is terrible. Even here on the base, it’s difficult to discern the difference between gray sky and gray ground on the horizon; the fire support officer who’s with the infantry patrol likely can’t see far enough to spot the target. And in field artillery, if you can’t get a visual on the target, you can’t shoot. Plus, rescue helicopters can’t fly in weather like this—and no choppers mean no mission. A few minutes later, Crispell’s radio crackles: mission cancelled.

The Alpha Battery soldiers at this far-flung FOB work with Marines to help secure the notorious Helmand River Valley, and this particular piece of desert comes with its own challenges. There’s the wind and heat (training runs outside in the summer are only feasible before 5 a.m.). And then there’s guard duty, excruciating six-hour shifts of sitting in the tower, eyes staring out at the great big nothing that is Helmand Province. No books or phones are allowed. The only distractions are conversations with a guard partner and the camels that occasionally come by to roll in the pool of sewage dumped just outside the FOB. (It’s the only open water for a couple of miles.) For Private First Class Mariana Duran-Montoya, initially, there was an additional discomfort: “I’m the only female in tower guard. The. Only. One,” she says. “When I first started doing it, everyone would just stare at me for the longest time, like, Is that a girl?

Duran-Montoya is the sole female cannoneer at the Helmand FOB. When the soft-spoken 20-year-old joined the Army shortly after high school, she didn’t realize field artillery had previously been closed to women. She’d signed up for it because canine trainer wasn’t available and she didn’t want a desk job. “Once I started going through basic, my drill sergeants were saying, ‘You’re going to be one of the first ones, so you have to push yourself,’ ” she says. The five-foot-three Duran-Montoya readily admits that when she got to the unit, she struggled to move multiple rounds of ammo. Today she can squat about as much as some of the other Alpha Battery soldiers.

It takes roughly 10 cannoneers to operate an M777—more if you count the fire direction center, which provides target coordinates to the gun crew, and the fire support officer or specialist, who travels with infantry troops to serve as the eyes on the ground. Each person on the gun crew has a specific role, and when done well, firing the howitzer follows a graceful choreography. As cannoneer number two, Duran-Montoya’s job is to open the breech, or the back of the howitzer barrel, while two crew members shove a 95-pound round into the cannon in a coordinated movement. After that, Duran-Montoya loads charges and propellent and closes the breech. If the number two fails to secure the breech, the consequences can be severe: A few years ago, in a different unit, one soldier was killed and several were wounded when it wasn’t properly closed.

Advertisement

Once the breech is shut and the section chief—essentially the gun’s quarterback—confirms that the coordinates and other information are correct, everyone steps away, and on command from the chief, cannoneer number one pulls the lanyard that fires the howitzer. The whole process generally takes between 90 seconds and four minutes—which is precisely why field artillery plays such a crucial role in Helmand. Unlike aircraft, which might have their own schedules and thus not be available immediately, the howitzers can be positioned and fired in a matter of minutes. “[The howitzer team is] a permanent fixture here,” says First Lieutenant Spencer Weiss, leader of Alpha Battery’s Second Platoon. “So we are constantly in support of this one mission set. We’re constantly available.”

Tonight, as a result of Helmand’s hot, howling wind, Alpha’s guns will remain silent. The soldiers slough off their vests and toss their helmets aside. The rounds and charges go back in the ammo shed; the barrel is lowered back toward the earth. A sewage truck rumbles by outside the fence, stirring up more dust and stink, while the soldiers check their gun pit. If they get a fire mission tonight, they don’t want to trip over anything. By the time they are done, the sun has dropped just above the horizon, barely able to penetrate the grit-filled atmosphere. As the soldiers trudge back to their headquarters, wiping sand and sweat from their eyes, it registers as little more than an orange night light in the sky.

More than 200 miles away, in Uruzgan, Wallace is carrying out precisely the same job as Duran-Montoya: Wallace is the number two cannoneer for Alpha Battery’s Achilles and Archangel guns. Field artillery tradition dictates that once a crew has qualified with its howitzer, the section chief gets to pick a name. After Alpha Battery’s last qualification at the National Training Center in Death Valley in February—the unit’s second visit in six months—many crews rechristened their cannons with monikers such as Ambush, Archangel, and Azrael (as in the angel of death and destruction in the Hebrew Bible).

The biblical reference is fitting, given that the church helped invent field artillery. Following the 14th-century introduction of wrought-iron cannons—which had a nasty habit of exploding when fired—Europeans modified the method used to cast church bells to craft bronze cannons. As technology advanced over the centuries, so did artillery’s prominence in war. By the 20th century, artillery’s formidable casualty-inducing abilities had earned it the title “King of Battle”: In World Wars I and II, it was one of the deadliest weapons systems in use.

Artillery’s role in smaller-scale fights on the ever-shifting battlefields of our modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been less pronounced. “This hasn’t been a big artillery war,” Range says. “Which is good, because that would mean it’s a high-intensity war and people are dying by the bushel—which hasn’t really been happening.” That doesn’t mean the guns of Alpha Battery have been quiet. While the howitzers’ primary function is to support infantry units on the ground, the crews also are busy with everything from terrain denial (regularly firing on a mountain pass, for example, to dissuade the enemy from attempting to make use of a route) to illumination missions, in which the howitzers fire a round that ignites with a parachute on it, lighting up the ground below for hundreds of feet. They don’t have to be close to do this: Today’s howitzers can hit targets from about 25 miles away.

Advertisement

Like the gun crews in Helmand, the soldiers in Uruzgan serve 24-hour shifts; it’s hot, dirty work with a lot of waiting around. When they’re on the “hot gun,” they must stay close enough to the howitzer to get to it within seconds. Usually that means waiting in full kit, or with helmets and vests at hand, in either the outdoor bunker or a makeshift ready room where the AC works only intermittently, mostly at night when the summertime temps drop from 115 to about 90. “When you’re in that metal building, you bake,” Wallace says. “There are days when I’m like, Oh my god, it’s so hard. But it’s also fun.”

Wallace isn’t afraid of a challenge. About a year before Alpha Battery’s deployment, she broke her right index finger—her trigger finger—in a training exercise. It wasn’t completely healed when she was selected to be her crew’s machine gunner, so Wallace learned to shoot left-handed. She didn’t want to miss out on the excitement of a deployment. It was why she’d signed up for field artillery in the first place.

Five hundred and sixty-one coalition troops have been killed in Kandahar Province since the start of the Afghanistan War in 2001. Only neighboring Helmand Province has claimed more, with 959. Captain Charles Range is responsible for troops in both. The provinces feature prominently on the map in Range’s Kandahar command post; it isn’t as big as the one he had at Fort Carson, but it still takes up half of one wall and is dotted with many of the American bases—and howitzer locations—in the country. The map represents part of the reason why Range, who went to high school in Colorado Springs, selected field artillery after graduating from the Virginia Military Institute. “I like there being a wider area I can influence; the map is how you see that,” he says. The son of an Air Force doctor and stay-at-home mom, Range also chose field artillery because it “tickled both sides of the brain.” “It’s a mix of combat arms, and you’re outside,” he says, “but it has that technical aspect, too.”

One of First Platoon’s
howitzers firing in Uruzgan Province. Photo courtesy of James Vigil

At six-foot-four, Range is an imposing presence. Yet his wry humor finds its way into even serious Army business—like working Biblical allusions into funny orders to his soldiers (“Go forth, and sin no more”). He’s also levelheaded and calm; about the most excited he gets is for the spicy bang bang chicken served on Fridays at Kandahar Airfield. Range, who was a history major, possesses detailed knowledge of obscure military battles—and a rare awareness of his own battery’s place in the chronicle of the modern American Army. In short, he’s precisely the sort of officer you want in charge of one of the first gender-integrated combat units of its kind deployed to a war zone. “I get the irony that it’s a big deal, but we want it to not become a big deal,” he says. “On the whole, there is so much more that I think about. Like, how good a soldier is this person?”
Being a good field artillery soldier, in Range’s view, is partially about understanding that you’re a member of a team, and the team is part of a machine. When one person fails, it can impact everyone else. If you’re not strong enough to load the 95-pound rounds, for example, then you can’t do certain jobs on a crew. And if you can’t do one of the jobs, someone else has to.

Strength isn’t the only piece of the equation, but it’s undeniably part of it. It follows, then, that when the DOD removed the ban on women in combat arms roles, it also required the implementation of a new gender- and age-neutral fitness test. The Army Physical Fitness Test currently uses different standards for men and women and age groups: While the situp requirement for 22-year-old men and women is the same, males are expected to do more than twice as many pushups and run two miles three minutes faster than the females. When the new Combat Fitness Test—which includes more functional elements like dead lifts, power throws, and sled drags, as well as the two-mile run—goes into place in 2020, men and women, young and old, will all be held to the same standards.

Advertisement

The policy change makes sense to Range. “I don’t think it’s an unreasonable standard for you to have to be able to physically move the biggest guy in your unit—because you might have to,” Range says. “I’ve had some pretty weak male soldiers I’ve had to sit down with and be like, ‘Bro, you gotta get in the gym because you couldn’t pick me up and carry me.’ I have a personal issue with that; I’m big and tall and I walk around with binoculars, so they’re going to shoot me first, and I need you to carry me.”

Range’s good-humored practicality extends to the litany of other issues that have been raised—often by the media—as women have slowly been integrated into field artillery. Peeing in the field? “Women have been going to the bathroom in the woods for thousands of years; they’ll be fine.” Offensive locker-room talk? “There were a lot of things that people were not supposed to be able to get away with before but could. People have to be more aware now. You’re talking in a mixed-gender work environment—like the rest of the civilized world, by the way.”

The impact of pregnancy has also been raised frequently, and Range notes that it can (and has) affected some of his gun crews. Pregnancy precludes women from performing the basic functions of a cannoneer, and depending on what a pregnant soldier’s job was, it could mean the gun crew has to re-qualify with a new member. Of course, the same situation applies if, say, the ammo chief tears his ACL or breaks a leg, but Range doesn’t see five ACL tears annually. He’s already seen that many pregnancies in just over a year.

Pregnancy also can prevent a soldier from being able to attend training and delay her advancement. The Basic Leadership Course that potential noncommissioned officers must take, for example, requires candidates to march with heavy backpacks—a no-go for pregnant women. “That can set you back a year and a half before all is said and done,” Range says. That might contribute to why some pregnant women opt for a “chapter eight,” a term that refers to the chapter of Army rules that allows women to elect out of service once they become pregnant.

None of this has convinced Range that integration is a bad idea, however. “I believe in what the Army is doing,” he says. “But I can also acknowledge that we have challenges.”

Advertisement

Despite all the praise surrounding the American military’s decision to lift the ban on women in combat roles, the United States is actually lagging behind much of the industrialized world: Nearly 20 other nations have previously integrated women into combat positions, among them Canada (in 1989), Sweden (also in 1989), and New Zealand (in 2001). Romania, which opened combat jobs to women in 2008, has sent roughly 100 women into close combat in Iraq. Danish women, who must meet the same physical standards as men, have served in combat roles—including in Afghanistan—since 1998. Israeli women, like men, are required to serve at least two years in the military and are allowed in most combat positions. And Norway, one of the first countries to open combat jobs to women, in 1985, made military service for men and women compulsory in 2015. In 2014, Norway’s Hunter Troop became the first all-female special forces unit in the world.

When the DOD first began discussing integration, opponents questioned how the presence of women would affect that all-important element of battlefield effectiveness: unit cohesion. Despite the relatively brief history of women in combat roles, the experience of other countries has provided researchers with some indication about what can help foster those bonds. Two of the biggest factors are entirely controllable and already being implemented in the United States: establishing neutral performance and fitness standards (as the Combat Fitness Test will do) and integrated training. A recent study of Norway’s military found that unit cohesion in gender-integrated units that were trained together was unaffected and that sexism in the unit’s males actually decreased as a result. A similar effect was observed when the United States first integrated minority troops in the 20th century. Most branches of the American military have been training men and women together for years. Now they train together in combat elements, too.

Certainly, though, there are other unknowables, such as how two soldiers falling in love might affect how they fight with and for each other—although the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” should have, in theory, answered that question already. Or how a male soldier might react to seeing a woman killed in front of him. Following the 1948 War of Independence, in which women fought and died alongside men, the Israeli military banned women from combat for decades. Among the topics that were debated in that decision: the impact that men’s protective nature had on their actions and the impact of seeing women killed.

Some people have raised concerns, particularly in the era of #MeToo, about the possibility of an increased risk of sexual assaults. Others have wondered if some soldiers simply might feel more protective of females and thus act differently in battle. “Growing up with sisters, you kind of adopt a mentality of protecting females, I guess,” says Duran-Montoya’s gun chief, Staff Sergeant Alexander Hullender. “That’s a little bit of bias that doesn’t go away. But if you look at history, anytime there’s something new introduced into any type of work environment or field, there’s always adjustments for everybody. It’s a shock for everybody, but you get used to it. In the Army, they’re not a male and they’re not a female. They’re a soldier.”

For his part, Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently said he believes “the jury is out” when it comes to women serving in combat roles. While addressing cadets at Range’s alma mater, VMI, this fall, Mattis noted this is partially because the sample size is so small; fewer than 800 women have filled the newly opened combat jobs.

Advertisement

The reality is that even in countries where combat jobs have been open to women for decades, females still make up small percentages of those units. Women don’t seem to either want the jobs or are unable to meet the demands of the positions—two reasons the DOD also did not establish quotas for the number of women in any one job field. “There are probably plenty of women who can lift the 95-pound artillery round 15 times in X number of seconds,” Range says. “But the point is, not every woman who is physically able to do that is going to sign up and say, Yeah! I want to join the American artillery.”

Jaing working out in Afghanistan earlier this year. photo courtesy of James Vigil

When a soldier enlists in the Army, she doesn’t just sign up and hope she gets put in the job she wants. Based on their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) scores and what is available, soldiers enlist within particular job fields, known as military occupational specialties, or MOSs. Each one has its own alphanumeric designation. Infantry soldier? You’re an 11B (or 11 Bravo, as it’s pronounced in the military’s phonetic alphabet). Combat medic? That’s 68W, or 68 Whiskey. Field artillery cannon crew member? 13B, or 13 Bravo. Many soldiers wear these designations proudly: They are emblems of the tribe to which they choose to belong.

One might assume that as combat arms positions opened to females, they only would be filled by women who specifically requested those jobs. That, however, is not always the case. Several of the first female 13Bs to arrive at Fort Carson were what are known as “reclasses,” or soldiers who were reclassified from the jobs they originally signed up for. Sometimes those soldiers—like Eun Jaing—are not given much of a choice about where they will go.

Jaing grew up in Gwangju, South Korea, and later married an American soldier. In November 2011, shortly after their son was born, the couple moved to the United States. Jaing spent the first few years of her son’s life at home, but as he got older, she longed for the opportunity to work. In November 2015, she enlisted as a parachute rigger for the U.S. Army.

By the time Jaing got to her Airborne Orientation Course (AOC), after basic training, she realized she’d made a mistake. Parachute rigging sounded like a good job—unless one of the chutes you packed failed. Jaing feared that if a fatal accident happened, she would end up in jail. She was also struggling with shin splints and having difficulty passing AOC’s timed four-mile run, so she had to take a different job. “They said, ‘Either you get out [of the Army] or you go to 13 Bravo,’ ” Jaing says. “I was like, ‘OK. I’ll go 13 Bravo.’ ”

Advertisement

Jaing arrived at Fort Carson as the second female 13B in Alpha Battery and the first in her section, or gun crew. She remembers her male colleagues being a little awkward, almost timid, at first. They were afraid to talk to her the way they did with the men, she says. She found this to be true especially of the noncommissioned officers in her section, who were likely concerned about the appearance of inappropriate relationships.

In the military, officers, including noncommissioned officers, aren’t permitted to date subordinates. It’s an offense that can get you kicked out; any suggestion of an inappropriate romantic involvement can be a potential career-ender. “If you’re smart socially, you understand society and you understand that the Army is looking at you,” says Second Platoon’s Weiss. “You’re always going to have that in the back of your head.” A former collegiate tennis player and middle school PE teacher, Weiss draws a parallel to the care male coaches must take when working with female athletes.

The challenge, therein, is that in male-dominated career fields, female soldiers might not receive the same kind of mentoring as their male counterparts—which may explain why promotion rates for women sometimes lag behind those of their male peers at higher enlisted ranks in the Army (although females in the Marine Corps, who make up only eight percent of that branch, are regularly promoted at a higher rate than men). A similar disparity is reflected in the officer corps, according to a Military Leadership Diversity Commission report. As it turned out, the hesitancy in Jaing’s noncommissioned officers wore off quickly. “They wanted to get to know me a bit first,” she says. “Then they started teaching me, little by little.”

When Wallace showed up a couple of months later, it was Jaing’s turn. During Wallace’s first week, the more experienced soldier told her to forget about going to lunch and to meet her in the motor pool instead. There, she made Wallace take the cannon breech apart and put it back together over and over again. “She’d tell me, ‘You’re going to learn how to take this shit apart; you’re going to do it faster than I can.’ ” Eventually, Wallace could. The males had other males to help them out, Jaing says, but there weren’t that many females, so she figured she should pass on the knowledge she had. “I don’t want males to look at females and be like, ‘Females don’t know their shit.’ ”

Jaing’s greater concern had less to do with gender and more to do with the actual job she was carrying out: She was uncomfortable with the idea of killing people. But as the weeks and months progressed, over countless field exercises and predeployment trainings, Jaing was comforted by the idea that she was shooting in support of other soldiers—the infantry troops on the ground. People she knew. Besides, she says, “If I didn’t like the thought of killing people, I shouldn’t have joined the Army—because that’s what the Army does.”

Advertisement

Almost all Alpha Battery soldiers live and sleep in the same hot, cramped metal box in Uruzgan. The main area serves as communal space for playing cards, storage, and conversation; anywhere between one and four soldiers share each of the attached bunkrooms. At one end of the barracks, a single room is reserved for Wallace and Jaing.

First Lieutenant James Vigil in Uruzgan Province. Photograph by Kasey Cordell

In early May, the two soldiers were sitting in their room when they heard the mortar alarms go off. By then they were used to the whistle of inbound ordnance; the FOB had been getting hammered by mortars and rockets since shortly after they arrived. Wallace had made a game of guessing where they were going to hit: Left or right of her position? Forward or behind? The pair leaned against their metal walls and waited.

Left or right? Forward or behind?

In the tactical operations center, First Platoon’s leader, Lieutenant Vigil, had heard the alarm, too. He’d recently moved out of the barracks and into the operations center. Vigil knew the mortar had hit something from the sound when it made contact. He watched the video feed of his platoon’s barracks and saw what looked like smoke. There was a huge hole in the roof, right above where his room used to be. It was two rooms down from Jaing and Wallace. All Vigil could do was watch; protocol demanded he remain where he was.

Inside the barracks, dust and dirt filled the rooms. “It was everywhere,” Wallace says. “You’re like, Oh, my God, is that smoke? Because you don’t think to smell, and you can’t fucking see.” Everyone ran into the main area, throwing vests and helmets on as they went, ready to sprint to their cannon. As the dust settled, Staff Sergeant Jesse Urena took a head count and radioed Vigil: Everyone was fine. Rattled—both figuratively and literally—but fine. When the mortar hit the metal building, it had turned into a giant tuning fork, sending nerve-jangling reverberations through the building and the soldiers inside, but everyone had escaped serious injury. “There was a 30-second period where I thought I lost several of my soldiers,” Vigil says. “That was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life. It was a reminder: There are people out there trying to kill you.”

Advertisement

A few weeks later, they succeeded. On July 7, Corporal Joseph Maciel died in an insider attack in Uruzgan. One of the Afghan army soldiers he was working with as part of the Army’s First Security Force Assistance Brigade—a specialized unit dedicated to training and assisting other nations’ militaries—turned his gun on American troops. Maciel was the third U.S. soldier killed in combat in Afghanistan this year (four more would follow in subsequent weeks)—and the 2,409th American death in Afghanistan since the war started 17 years ago.

Captain Range left Afghanistan this past August. In a small ceremony in Kandahar at the end of July, he handed over control of Alpha Battery to Captain David Knowles. He’d been commander of the battery for more than a year and a half. His tenure at the helm was longer than most, a result mostly of circumstance but also in part by choice. Range could have moved on earlier in the spring, but he didn’t want to leave his soldiers on the eve of their deployment. “It’s good to see people that I’ve been around for a year and a half out here doing the job,” he says. “But I’ll feel a lot better when they all get back.”

When Wallace, who became her crew’s gunner in August, returns from Afghanistan early next year, she won’t stay in Colorado for long. After almost three years in the Army, she’ll be preparing to move to her next assignment. She was offered slots in Hawaii, Washington, Texas, and Georgia and at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

Campbell is the home of the esteemed 101st Airborne Division and the Sabalauski Air Assault School, where field artillery soldiers learn to load and unload howitzers from helicopters—then follow them to the ground by rappelling out of the choppers. Having an Air Assault credential would add to Wallace’s resumé: Between that, her deployment, and her Combat Action Badge, she’d be in a good position for future promotions—precisely one of the reasons the DOD opened combat jobs to women in the first place. But Fort Stewart, in Georgia, is only a five-hour drive from her family in Castle Hayne, so when Wallace re-enlisted this fall, she took a position there.

Stewart only began accepting female cannoneers in recent months, so Wallace knows she’s likely to be one of the first, and there’s a chance that some or all of the men in her crew won’t have any experience working with women. She’s prepared to deal with the same adjustment issues she did at Fort Carson. “People will treat you differently, but they’ll treat anybody differently—especially if you let them,” she says. “I didn’t enlist to prove a point, and I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I think it’s cool that I’m one of the first females, but that’s not like a badge for me. I fucking love what I do. I love blowing shit up, and I love being here. Sometimes I want to strangle some of the guys I work with, and some days I love them. They’re my brothers—and the few sisters that I have.”

Advertisement

She’ll lose one of those sisters when she goes home. After two years with the 2-12 FA, Jaing is getting out—not of the Army, but of field artillery. Earlier this summer, in the back of a Chinook helicopter buzzing over central Afghanistan, she re-enlisted as a 68D (68 Delta), an operating room specialist. The new job is a better fit for her life as a mother, one that doesn’t have her out in the field half the year. When she first approached Range about wanting to make the change more than a year ago, Alpha Battery’s commander told her he would do his best—if she did her best. “I strongly believe if you put your mind to something, you eventually achieve that goal you set,” she says. “I knew the beginning of this whole female 13 Bravo thing had been a struggle. After us, it shouldn’t be a big issue.”

Duran-Montoya, who was recently promoted to specialist, also thinks that when it’s time to re-enlist, she’ll opt out of field artillery and into an animal-related career—or maybe she’ll go to college, where she hopes to study to be a veterinarian or zoologist. “Never in a million years did I think I was going to be in Afghanistan,” she says. “This has been a really good experience, but I don’t think I want to make a career out of it. I love animals too much for that.”

By the time Jaing, Wallace, and Duran-Montoya return from Afghanistan, their unique status as some of the first female 13Bs to deploy to a combat zone likely will have already been eclipsed by other female trailblazers. Their story is simply the latest in what has already been a long series of firsts for women in the military: the first three women to graduate from Marine infantry training class (November 2013); the first female officers to graduate from the Army’s hallowed Ranger School (August 2015); the first female to enlist in the U.S. Army infantry (April 2016); the first female tank commander in the Marine Corps (April 2017); the first female Marine infantry platoon leader (August 2018). Someday these inaugural moments will become mere footnotes in the annals of American military history instead of headlines, and the clamor with which each step toward integration is celebrated will fade into the quiet of normality.

For some, that day is already here. Early on a July evening, Vigil sits in the shade at a picnic table outside the dining facility in Uruzgan, smoking a cigar and discussing how fortunate he feels to have gotten a combat deployment so early in his career. Every few minutes, the booms of outbound mortars from the nearby Afghan National Army camp rattle the air around him. He takes a long puff of his cigar. Does he contemplate his unit’s place in history? Or his unique role as the leader of one of America’s first gender-integrated howitzer crews in combat? “You know,” he says, blowing the cigar smoke out, “I don’t even think about that.”

5280 Longreads

Newsletter Signup

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone. Sign Up