By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Jan. 13, 2016) -- Maj. Lisa Jaster, an Army Reserve officer and the third woman to graduate the Army's elite Ranger School, was among 23 guests invited to sit with Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address, Jan. 12.
"Hopefully I can be cool," she said before the speech. "I think it's a huge honor. And I look forward to it."
Normally there would be 24 guests sitting with the first lady. However, during President Barack Obama's last State of the Union, there were only 23. Like the Army often does during a formal banquet, where a seat at the table is left empty to represent Soldiers who have been killed in action, the first lady left a seat to her left empty, to represent civilians who have been killed through gun violence.
'BORN TO BE RANGER'
In October 2015, Jaster, an engineering officer and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, became the third female Soldier to graduate Ranger School. It's an accomplishment she said she'd been preparing for most of her life, even before she knew she wanted to go to the school.
"I've worked out. I took a weightlifting class in high school. I've always enjoyed physical challenges," she said. "I've always been interested in tactics. One of the reasons I love being an engineer[ing] officer is because part of our job is to build the battlespace for the tip of the spear. So my preparation for Ranger School started well before the concept of Ranger School came into my mind."
When she learned from a first sergeant that the course had opened up to women, she said, she knew she wanted to attend. Her husband, a Marine Corps officer, agreed.
"The very first response my husband had was 'you were made to do this, Lisa.'"
Last year, the defense secretary announced that all military jobs across all services would be opened to women. That's something Jaster said she hadn't believed would ever happen during her time in uniform. But had those options been open to her when she was enrolled at West Point, before she got her commission, she said she thinks not much would have changed for her. She'd still want to be the engineering officer she is today, she said.
"In all honesty, I love being an engineer[ing] officer," she said. "But I definitely would have gone to all the cool schools. That was just my personality back then, and 16 years later, it hasn't changed. I definitely would have tried to go to all the schools. And while on active duty, I would have tried to get company command of a Sapper unit, which is now open to women, but wasn't back then. And I would have tried to be in more forward units than were allowed."
ANOTHER GROUND-BREAKING ENGINEER
Another West Point graduate - and as of Jan 5, the first female commandant of cadets at the academy - Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, also attended the State of the Union address as a guest of U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York. She said the event was for her, quite memorable.
"I had the opportunity to meet a number of representatives and their guests, including two wounded warriors undergoing treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center," Holland said. "The entire evening was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget."
With new opportunities for women now opening in the Army, Holland said she is excited for female Soldiers now having more choices in how they serve - but for herself she said she wouldn't have done anything different.
"There have certainly been a number of exciting changes in policy this year that officially allow women to serve in all specialties," Holland said. "It marks the last step in an integration process that has been ongoing for as long as I've been in the Army. I wouldn't change anything about my career. The Army and the Engineer Regiment have been good to me and provided me with wonderful experiences along the way. With the changes in policy, many more women will have the same or more opportunities."
Holland assumed the role of commandant of West Point just last week. Since accepting the burden of responsibility for the military, physical, character and social development of more than 4,400 cadets at the school, she said, things have started off smoothly - and she's been glad to get back into the groove at her alma mater.
"My first week back at West Point has been everything I expected and more," she said. "It has been fun to re-acquaint myself with the institution, the talented staff and faculty, and most importantly, get to know the current Corps of Cadets. As always, the cadets are impressive and inspiring. It doesn't get any better than this."
Shah, born in Saudi Arabia, came to the United States as a boy. He was just 13 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place and said the experience drove him to serve his new country.
"Their fear stuck with me and made me feel like joining the Army was something that would allow me to give back to a country that has given me so many opportunities," Shah said.
Shah enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2006 and was assigned to 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry as a public affairs specialist. He later deployed to Iraq in 2009 with the 13th Sustainment Command out of Fort Hood, Texas. Operating out of Joint Base Balad, Shah traveled the country and remembers seeing how the country was shaping, especially on Iraq's Election Day.
"I remember we were pulling security and there were reports of violence all over, but the lines were still full. That made me never want to take voting for granted gain," Shah said.
Shah left active duty in 2010 and had a rough time transitioning. Ultimately, Shah joined the U.S. Army Reserve and only recently finished his commitment in 2015.
Today, Shah is a real estate agent, and is working toward a finance degree by using his GI Bill. And while he's actually been to the White house twice before - during one visit he met both the president and vice president - he was still honored to have been invited to sit with the first lady during the State of the Union.
"I didn't believe it," he said. "I was floored."
Army veteran Earl Smith also sat in the first lady's box during the address. He actually met the president before, back in 2008 when the president was a senator on the campaign trail.
Then, Smith was director of security at a hotel in Texas and met then-candidate Obama in an elevator. There, he passed on to the would-be president a cherished memento of his time in uniform: a patch from the 101st Airborne Division. Obama initially didn't want to accept the patch, though he eventually relented and put the patch in his pocket.
Smith told Obama that he could look at the patches and "remember that we are America, and this is what we are about. We are about service and sacrifice, and that we are all in this together."
The president ended up carrying the patch with him for the remainder of his campaign, and the patch will end up in the presidential library after Obama leaves office.
Attending Obama's last State of the Union is something Smith said "means the world to me."
Also sitting with the first lady was Army veteran Oscar Vasquez, who served from 2010 - 2014, including a tour in Afghanistan. He is now an advocate for science-technology-engineering-mathematics, or STEM, education for under-served youth.