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Combat roles for women soldiers at Lewis-McChord

Mar. 13, 2014 - 03:34PM   |  
LT. TAYLOR CARDOSI
Lt. Taylor Cardosi stands next a howitzer weapon March 5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Cardosi is a front-line fire direction officer in an artillery battery after combat roles are opening to women. (Lui Kit Wong / The News Tribune via AP)
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TACOMA, WASH. — Capt. Pete Middleton had his choice of two rookie lieutenants he could bring in to his artillery battery last summer. One was a man, the other a woman applying for a traditionally all-male Army assignment.

Middleton picked the lieutenant who had better test scores coming out of artillery school.

And just like that, Lt. Taylor Cardosi became the first female officer assigned to a Lewis-McChord howitzer battery.

Now she’s about to begin a new assignment giving her more responsibility as an artillery platoon leader.

“I just do my job,” Cardosi said, deflecting attention from her first-in-the-Army assignment.

Cardosi’s posting at the base south of Tacoma was a small milestone in the Army’s integration of female soldiers into front-line combat roles that had been barred to them, even as they took on increasing responsibilities in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Army formally lifted gender restrictions on Cardosi’s job — howitzer fire direction officer — in December. Over the next two years, the Defense Department is opening thousands more jobs to female troops.

At Lewis-McChord, the changing roles are most pronounced in the six combat brigades that make up the 7th Infantry Division. It’s staffed with about 20,000 troops under infantry, artillery, aviation, engineer and intelligence brigades.

Since last year, 30 female soldiers in the division have moved into assignments that are newly available to women, said division spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Sowers said. Cardosi’s is one of those jobs.

Another 70 female soldiers have moved closer to the front lines. For example, women previously could serve as medics or intelligence soldiers in the headquarters for large units.

Now they officially can join ground-level units outside the headquarters. Those women are doing largely the same jobs but in a potentially more dangerous position.

Elsewhere on Lewis-McChord, the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command oversees about 6,000 military police, supply and medical soldiers serving in units open to female troops at every level.

The base also has about 3,500 Army special operators in nearly all-male units. Army Special Operations Command is conducting a study looking at how female soldiers might be integrated into Ranger and Special Forces units.

In June, the Special Operations Command opened all positions in its helicopter unit — the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment — to women. No female soldiers have yet qualified to be a SOAR pilot, said Army Special Operations Command spokeswoman Maj. Allison Aguilar.

Meanwhile, the early results of an Armywide survey on gender integration is revealing concerns from soldiers of both sexes that the military might lower physical standards in the interest of bringing more women into combat units.

“Men don’t want the standard lowered to accommodate women, and women don’t want the standard lowered because they want their peers to recognize them for their abilities and know they got in those positions because of merit,” said Maj. Harold Huff, a spokesman for Army Training and Doctrine Command.

So far, 30,000 women have replied to the survey. About 20 percent have indicated moderate or high interest in serving in combat assignments, such as infantry or special operations. Only about 8 percent reported having a high interest in those fields.

Cardosi, 23, technically arrived at her unit, the 1st Battalion, 37th Artillery Regiment, before Big Army was ready for her.

She got there in July, five months before the Army announced that women could serve as fire direction officers on howitzer batteries.

Her commanders, Middleton and Lt. Col. Norberto Menendez, brought her in anticipation of the rule change. By then, female soldiers had already held the same position for other kinds of artillery, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System.

They trained Cardosi as if she’d stay, and found out she was as good as her artillery school test scores suggested.

The job requires quick thinking under pressure. A fire direction officer feeds coordinates to artillerymen so they can lay down accurate rounds.

“She’s unbelievable. She sets the standard in many ways,” said Menendez.

Middleton, 29, thought he’d have to look out for Cardosi because his cannon crews had not served with a female lieutenant before. She proved herself quickly.

“She was like, ‘Leave me alone. I got this,’” he remembered. “It’s been really easy because she’s the right person for the job.”

Cardosi grew up in Massachusetts and was interested in the military at an early age. She followed news about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and “knew I wanted to have a role protecting my country.”

She felt a pull to the combat arms but did not know where to turn for female role models as an ROTC cadet at Bucknell College.

“My experience was that there was no one I could ask questions” about how a woman could advance in the Army, she said.

In 2011, Cardosi attended an ROTC event where a female officer suggested she try artillery because positions were opening up for women.

“I took that and ran with it,” Cardosi said.

Cardosi, now a DuPont resident, was able to show the guys at Lewis-McChord that she knows her stuff when the battalion traveled to the Yakima Training Center for a month of exercises with Japanese ground forces in September.

“She’s probably the best (fire direction officer) I’ve ever worked with,” said Sgt. Stephen Marshall, 31, a soldier with seven years’ experience in artillery.

He admitted he didn’t know what to think when he learned he’d have a female officer directing the shots.

“This is the first time I ever worked with a female. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know it was going to happen to me,” he said.

An Army public affairs writer in Cardosi’s unit wrote a story about her in January that circulated around the military while the artillery battalion was training in Southern California.

Cardosi didn’t know about the article’s reach until she got out of the exercise weeks later.

Aside from her mom’s pride in the story, Cardosi found young women trying to contact her. They wanted advice on how they could start Army careers.

“Maybe I can be that (role model) for someone else,” she said.

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