Army Female Tank Commanders Leaving Track Marks
by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Agustin Montanez
September 2, 2022
They wear the same uniforms. They work,
live, and train with them. They even communicate using the same
jargon and acronyms that most people outside their organization
wouldn't be able to comprehend. Yet, there isn't a single day that
goes by in which they don't notice that they are different from the
They put time and effort into their teams to ensure
they are all working towards the same objective and that their
tracks are moving in the same direction. Nonetheless, their journey
is sometimes more challenging because they also carry the
responsibility of being pioneers and pathfinders. They travel in
terrains that very few like them have conquered, and precisely for
that reason, they are trying to facilitate the passage for those
that might follow.
In 2016, all combat positions were made
available to women in accordance with the Army's Soldier 2020 gender
U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Emily Sarah Alvarado,
Staff Sgt. Iris Barajas, and 1st. Lt. Kimberly Kelly are tank
commanders assigned to the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd
Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, belong to a
small ... but growing ... group of female Soldiers that have
accepted the challenge to become part of the combat-arms branches
and combat-arms military occupational specialties within the U.S.
Integrating and leading in a
traditionally all-male field has presented many challenges.
For Barajas, a native of Yuba
City, California, even though she grew up among four brothers and
was used to getting dirty and playing rough with the boys. She
thinks her most significant obstacle in becoming a female tank
commander was adapting to the environment.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Iris Barajas, a tank commander, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, evaluates her Soldiers as part of a gunnery skills test held at Pabrade, Lithuania, July 19, 2022. (Image
created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Agustín Montañez.)
beginning, it was hard being a female in an MOS historically
composed of only males," she said. "For a long time, I was the only
female in my company, making it difficult for some NCOs to mentally
make the transition and accept that there would now be more of us
among their ranks."
Being part of the first wave of the
gender integration plan into the combat-arms field also put them
under additional pressure to perform well.
"I would be lying
if I said that I didn't feel some pressure," said Alvarado, who
originally had no intentions to join a combat-arms branch but gave
it more thought after one of her ROTC sergeants asked her if she
wouldn't be interested in going into combat arms and being part of
the first wave of females in that field.
more into those branches, I realized that not only I would love to
do the things that they did, but that I was pretty confident I had
it in me to make it happen," she said. "So, if I'm being frank, I
did feel the pressure to perform well because I wanted to represent
and be part of the group of females that would demonstrate that
women could not only survive but that we could also thrive in this
type of environment."
Yet, for Kelly, a 24-year-old platoon
leader, the pressure she felt was more internal.
beginning of my military career, I've had to work hard and be
resilient. When I first joined the ROTC program, I wasn't a
contracted cadet, so I had to fight and prove myself to get a
scholarship and a position," said the 24-year-old native of Houston,
Texas. "Coming into combat arms, I felt pressured because I knew I
always have to put more effort than anybody around me to get a
Nonetheless, they all agree that being part of that
first wave of gender integration into combat arms meant that
sometimes it was difficult finding other more experience female
leaders that could serve as their mentors. Having someone who shares
their gender with whom they can relate, talk to, and ask questions
could greatly benefit those women who decide to enter this career
Alvarado recalls how while attending her Basic Officer
Leaders Course, her instructor asked the class to create their
5-year-plan. While talking to her friend, they both started to
wonder how they could build into their plans of having children and
starting a family while simultaneously serving as armor officers.
U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Emily Alvarado, a tank commander assigned to the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, evaluates her Soldiers as part of a gunnery skills test held at Pabrade, Lithuania, July 19, 2022. (Image
created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Agustín Montañez.)
"You can't necessarily be pregnant on a tank. So we decided to ask
our instructor to see if he could help us figure it out. Not
surprisingly, he couldn't give us a straight answer because that was
something he never had to deal with before. That's a
complicated question that very few people could answer, because even
fewer people have had to go through it. Situations like this are why
it's so important to have access to mentors who have dealt with
similar situations and are willing to help you figure out how to
overcome said obstacles," said 2nd Lt. Emily Sarah Alvarado.
Alvarado, Kelly, and Barajas might
not have found a solution to all the obstacles they had faced on
this journey. Nevertheless, they found something that certainly
In simple words: putting in the work.
have a strong work ethic, so I made sure that regardless of the
task, I was putting in the work and always giving it my best," said
Barajas. "I wanted to show them that I deserved to be there as much
as anybody else. So I kept pushing myself to prove I was as capable
as any of them."
Testament of her work is that she made the
rank of staff sergeant and became a tank commander in just her first
four years of service.
"By being vulnerable and
demonstrating my willingness to learn from my crew, specifically
from my NCOs, I gained the respect of my soldiers," added Kelly. "I
showed them that I wanted to do this, and they can see that's true
because every chance I get, you can find me in the motor pool
getting my hands dirty and working with them on the tanks."
Alvarado shares a similar view with her two fellow tank commanders.
"This is a learning experience, so one is bound to make
mistakes in the process. But as long as you own up to those mistakes
and every day you work hard and give your best to become proficient
at your job, your Soldiers will have your back," she said.
"Ironically, at the end of the day, you might even realize that it's
no longer about you. You might realize that you are putting in all
of this effort to be a better version of yourself for them so that
you can lead and mentor them in the right direction."
road to becoming a cohesive team it's built upon hard work and
While gazing at the ground, Barajas
reflected on her journey. With both her eyes focused on one point,
she said, "being a female in a predominantly male field, it's rough,
it's definitely rough."
Then she raised her eyes, and,
looking at her M1A2 Abrams tank, she added, "but you get to build a
bond with your team that you wouldn't get anywhere else besides
being in this job. Without even realizing it, you all become a
family, taking care of each other as if you were siblings. They are
my brothers, and I am their sister."
"It's not a male versus
female thing," said Alvarado. "In reality, most of our male
counterparts want to see us succeed, and they will be there to lift
us if we ever need them. Just as we would for them."
sometimes that's not enough, she explained. There are things that
you can only talk about with someone who has experienced it
firsthand. As a woman, there are ingenious tricks and tips on
surviving in a field environment that only another woman who had to
go through all that could teach you.
All three agreed that
the Army would greatly benefit if more female Soldiers got into the
combat-arms branches and combat-arms military occupational
"Not only do we want, but we also need more
females in combat arms because diversity is one of the things that
makes the Army and our teams stronger," said Barajas. "As one of the
first and currently few female tank commanders, I think that with
everything we have accomplished, we have already set foot in the
door for those coming behind us."
Kelly also agrees that
there should be more female tankers. Nevertheless, she clarifies
that the armor career field isn't for everyone.
think there should be more female tankers just because they're
females," she explained. "I think there should be more female
tankers if they want to do it. Maintaining a tank requires a lot of
time and work, but it doesn't feel as bad when you are passionate
about what you do."
With a smile on her face, Alvarado added
that she was having the time of her life.
"As a five-foot-one
fairly petite female, I get to command such a giant beast as an
Abrams tank, and I sure love it. I really love every second of it,"
she said. "I would like to tell all those females contemplating
joining combat arms or the armor career field that they should
absolutely do it."
The pathfinders have done their job. Those
who come after them need only follow their track marks, and their
journey should be a little smoother. At least three ... but probably
more ... female tank commanders will be receiving them with open
"I promise there are more people on your side rooting
for you than against you," said Alvarado. "The only thing you need
to do is put in the work and become proficient and confident in your
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