March 29, 2010

Women in the Guard prove themselves in service

By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON — Two National Guardmembers – one, the nation's first female adjutant general, the other among the Guard's top combat-decorated women – shared experiences recently about the challenges and accomplishments of women in military service.

The nation celebrates National Women's History Month in March. This year's theme is "Writing Women Back into History."

In that celebration, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville and Army Spc. Monica Beltran spoke at the National Guard Memorial building here on Capitol Hill.

"We still need to educate, we still need to progress," Rainville said during a luncheon at the memorial.

Rainville served in the Vermont Air National Guard after many other Air Force assignments. In 1997, she became the state's adjutant general – the first women ever nationwide.

In hindsight, she admitted that she should have engaged others more during her tenure, to be evidence for the achievements possible of women in the military.

"I discovered … that so many young women have no concept of military service as something that was open, for them," she said. "… They don't know unless we do a better job of telling them what the opportunities are and showing what women are doing today." 

Rainville also said work still needs to be done to open the remaining gender-doors that are closed.

"As much as I love the Guard, I do know that it has not always been a progressive organization," she said, pointing out the adjustments that were necessary to allow more women to serve in nontraditional fields.  They included changes in attitudes, in policies, and sometimes in basic accommodations.

The Guard adjusted during the last 50 years to bring women into its ranks, she said.

As Rainville moved up through various leadership positions that included being a maintenance officer, she said she was always the first woman to serve in them. She said it took an average of six months to be considered a professional, and not just a woman assigned to the position.

Beltran said her Army combat experience taught her that women are just as challenged to prove themselves capable as men in the war fight.

She was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor device for her service in Balad, Iraq, in 2005. According to the narrative submitted for her award:

"Specialist Beltran returned maximum suppressive fire while a massive amount of small arms fire rained down upon her vehicle. ...while laying down suppressive fire, took multiple rounds to her truck and dozens landed near her turret. Additionally, Specialist Beltran suffered a gun shot wound to her left thumb ...and despite her injuries, she courageously remained in the turret and continued returning fire...Her personal courage was beyond reproach and contributed to saving the lives of 54 soldiers."

During her deployment, she said male Soldiers were not comfortable with women serving with them in combat.

That attitude changed when her convoy came under attack from insurgents wielding improvised explosives, small-arms fire and grenades. Despite being wounded and another Soldier dying, Beltran steadfastly manned her machine gun throughout the firefight.

"They did not accept me as being a gunner, but that day I showed them that a female could do just as much as a male, and maybe better," she said.

Beltran, who still serves in the Virginia Guard, said she agrees with Rainville's admission about engaging others more about the opportunities of women in military service.

"I think what she said is on point," said Beltran. "The lack of communicating, the lack of reaching out to other people is where the fault is."

Additional reporting from John Listman, Virginia Historical Collection

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