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On Capitol Hill, female Soldiers discuss equality

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Aug. 26, 2009) -- The Army and the Congressional Woman's Caucus on Issues teamed up Aug. 26 on Capitol Hill for a Women's Equality Day presentation titled "Women NCOs in the U.S. Army."

The Army panel was made of three female noncommissioned officers and one female commissioned officer. They discussed being women in uniform, their time in the Army, and their reasons for joining the service.

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Sgt. Maj. Barbara Henson, with the Asymmetric Warfare Group at Fort Meade, Md., said over the years she has seen changes in the way women are treated in the Army. Evidence of that, she said, is the difference between her first experience at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a young Soldier, and her experience there years later as a first sergeant.

"The difference in those eight years was phenomenal," she said. "The first day I was at Fort Bragg as a Soldier, I showed up with another female, and we were the first two females that platoon had seen -- we were not welcomed at all. They felt that now their platoon was not going to be as hooah as the other ones."

Growing up the only girl with six older brothers, she said their attitude didn't faze her, however. "They expected a lot of us and we preformed and we were accepted."

Years later, coming back as a first sergeant, she said things were different.

"The company had male commands the whole time I was a first sergeant and both of them accepted me as their partner in command," she said. "And the Soldiers -- and I only had two female Soldiers in a company of 126 -- they completely accepted me as their first sergeant. I do think there was a difference in those times I was at Fort Bragg."

1st Sgt. Sylvia Rios-Holcomb, of Battle Company, Warrior Transition Brigade, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., said any changes she's seen over her 20 years of service have been more subtle.

"I can't say I have seen significant or drastic changes from 20 years ago when I joined the Army, maybe because they have happened gradually," Holcomb said. "But I will say that we have been more accepted.

"I have seen myself in larger groups interacting with males, and being able to prove myself, as a female Soldier. For the most part, I can hang with the big guys -- I will be the first to say I cannot hang with them in everything they do -- but I think that women in the military have gone a long ways to prove that some of us can actually do some of the extraordinary things that our male counterparts can do."

As to whether the Army can stand to make improvements in how female Soldiers fit into the force, Rios-Holcomb cites an infallible source: her mother.

"Mom always told me there is room for improvement," she said. "But I do think the Army is better today compared to what it was 40 to 50 years ago, because it has given me an opportunity. And I can only imagine where we'll be 20 years from now -- we are taking strides and we are making progress as an organization. I am happy with where we have come today."

Maj. Jennifer A. Reynolds, now with the Army Office of the Chief of Legislative Liaison, is an Black Hawk pilot by trade. She shared a love of flying with her grandfather, also an Army pilot.

As a pilot, she flew both supplies and people around in Iraq. At one point, she was even responsible for moving Saddam Hussein from his confinement area to his trial location. She said as a female pilot, she expected reactions from male Soldiers that never came.

"We'd fly in there, I'm all of 5-foot three-inches -- I'd get out of my aircraft and have to put my hair back up because it wouldn't fit in my helmet," she said. "Their first impression of me is this short person who has to put her hair back up. And the first times we went in there I expected a negative reaction. But I never got it, ever."

Most of her experiences as a woman in the Army have been like that. She said equality for women in the Army begins with a female Soldier's ability to prove her mettle -- same as the male Soldiers.

"Men expect men and women to prove themselves equally," she said. "You have to prove yourselves to the Soldiers. I've worked with a lot of women and they are up to the job."

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