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Army's 1st female Master Gunner brings weapons training expertise to Reserve unit

July 10, 2016 (Photo Credit: Patrick A. Albright/Army)

Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Saunders is the first female graduate of the Army's Master Gunner Common Core Course, marking yet another first for the service as it removes gender-based restrictions on jobs across the force.

The Army Reservist and petroleum supply specialist with the 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) in Des Moines, Iowa, completed the month-plus course on June 27.

Saunders told Army Times she volunteered in response to a request for someone in her unit to attend the course. She had experience with weapons during her service, including shooting a 50-caliber gun as a gunner while deployed to Iraq.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was challenging. It was refreshing because most Army courses I’ve taken were not that difficult,” she said of a course that will let her train other soldiers on a number of weapon systems and processes. “It’s another hat I’ll wear.”

In addition to her new master gunner duties, Saunders already is the individual training noncommissioned officer in charge for her unit as well as Digital Training Management System manager. 

Her commander, Brig. Gen. Jonathan McColumn, said Saunders exemplified his desire to have soldiers maximize their skill sets. He added that she “represents the best of who we are,” and will use her new expertise to help train other soldiers to enhance the unit’s capabilities.

“It is part of the new military effort that requires us to do master gunnery,” he said. “The Army requires that our organizations can use all of its crew-served weapons effectively, which is something we haven’t done very well in the past.”

Saunders said her gender was not a factor during the training and downplayed being the first female graduate. Because of that push for increased gunnery proficiency, Saunders said it was more significant to her to become one of the first reservists to complete the relatively new course.

“It really hadn’t dawned on me that [being the first female] was really too big of a deal to me,” she said. “We’re all sustainment, and we’re going to start to have to learn how to shoot all this gunnery, so we’re going to have to learn how to do this.”

Generally, a master gunner serves as the commander’s technical and tactical expert. The common core is a new course that prepares soldiers for platform-specific courses. It aims to make soldiers experts in concepts that apply to all weapon systems.

During the course, soldiers learn how to identify weapon systems — from small arms to large caliber guns — they may face and identify the best weapon to engage a particular target. They take a deep dive into the M2 .50-caliber and the M240 machine guns. They also learn how to determine range, coordinate crew efforts, ensure safety and assess whether desired affects had been achieved. Ammunition — characteristics, capabilities, environmental effects — is studied, and the soldiers also learn how to develop training plans to educate their soldiers.

“As for the hands-on weapons part, I was a gunner in Iraq. I have shot a 50-caliber gun. But this goes more into depth: how to train fire commands, how to set up ranges to train, requirements leading up to the live fire events and whatnot,” Saunders said.

Saunders, from Rosemount, Minnesota, joined her home state’s National Guard in 2004. She transferred to the Army Reserve in 2011 and transitioned to the Active Guard and Reserve in 2013.

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