SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Women have a long history of serving on the battlefield. They followed their husbands during the Revolutionary War as nurses, cooks and seamstresses. They were officially allowed to enlist during World War I, and in 2016, the Pentagon lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles. Throughout the years, notable women continued to break down barriers and make history: Loretta Walsh was the first female to enlist in the military, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was the first female awarded the Silver Star for combat action in 2005, and Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver were the first females to graduate Ranger School.
On April 14, 2017, Staff Sgt. Cyndi Pearl Baltezore also made history by becoming the first female in the California Army National Guard to join the ranks of the infantry.
Baltezore said she hopes her accomplishments honor the women who came before her and have helped pave the way for the future of females in the military.
She decided to become an infantryman after attending the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States conference last year. The conference was held not long after the announcement was made that all combat arms positions would be open to females. Baltezore, who had been with the military police her entire career, said she was excited to see that kind of progress and hailed the integration of women into combat. During the conference, she asked a panel of senior enlisted noncommissioned officers how they felt about the integration, and one sergeant major's opinion was that women do not belong in the infantry whatsoever.
'It just clicked for me,' Baltezore said. 'Why not join the infantry? And not just to prove that sergeant major wrong, but to also show other women that it's not impossible. If you have the right mindset and the right attitude and that intestinal fortitude to do it, then why not?'
It wasn't until she started talking to Lt. Col. Forest Horan, the operations officer at the 1-185th Infantry Battalion at the time, that she realized she was actually going to be the first female infantryman in California.
'At first, I was just like, 'I want to join the infantry, that sounds like a good fit for me,'' Baltezore explained. 'When I found out that I was going to be the first, it really hit me: holy crap, this is a big responsibility.'
She knows all eyes are on her: leadership monitoring how the integration unfolds, skeptics waiting to see if she succeeds or fails, and other female Guardsmen wanting to follow her lead.
'I'm just at the right place at the right time,' she said. 'I didn't have to be the first, but I'm going to be and I'm really humbled that I have this opportunity - to be the first one to climb the ladder and open that flood gate so that all these other females who have been wanting to join the infantry finally can.'
Baltezore joined the New Mexico National Guard in 2003. Two years later, she transferred to California and became a familiar face around the state. She deployed twice - first to Afghanistan in 2009 and then to Iraq in 2010. She then went on to work with the Homeland Response Force and the Counterdrug Task Force.
'She has done everything and has succeeded because she has this driving force to learn and to get better to become a better Soldier,' 1st Sgt. Ian Bones said. Bones has known Baltezore for three years; he was the first sergeant of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 49th Military Police Brigade when she was in the unit and now works with her at the Counterdrug Task Force. 'I know she will be successful in anything she wants to do because that's the way she is. She's the type of person that, if you tell her she can't do something, she's going to tighten up her bootstraps and prove you wrong.'
She transferred to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-185th Infantry Battalion (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) in January and attended the Infantry Transition Course at the Umatilla Army Depot in Oregon, April 1-14.
The infantry, often referred to as the 'Queen of Battle' and known for having a 'boys-club' culture, hasn't necessarily welcomed female integration with open arms. However, Baltezore said she has not experienced any negativity, adversity or antagonism from the men in her unit or from any of the male students at infantry school.
'I felt like everyone just treated me as a Soldier and expected me to lead as a staff sergeant,' she said. 'The leadership is really supportive of me and I'm a hard charger - if something needs to get done, I get it done. As long as you're pulling your weight, I don't think there should be a problem.'
Two other females, Staff Sgt. Melanie Galletti with the Idaho National Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team and Sgt. Dakota Demers with the Colorado National Guard's 1-157th Infantry Regiment, A Company, also completed the infantry transition course alongside Baltezore. They too are the first infantry females in their states.
'They were amazing; I love those girls,' Baltezore said. 'We motivated each other. If one of us was struggling on something, we really pushed the other. We knew we were going to get through it together and we were going to graduate together.'
She said the course, which included, a 12-mile, 70-pound ruck march, a 35-meter grenade toss, and a physically demanding obstacle course was challenging for everyone, males and females alike.
'We all experienced the same suck and we all went through it just the same. No standards were lowered,' she said. 'And I know my male classmates loved having us there - we just brought a different perspective and we didn't pose any of the challenges they kind of assumed would happen. If nothing else, there was just a lot of underestimation; they didn't think we were going to make it, but we did. We did exactly what they did.'
Baltezore said she is extremely honored to be part of the infantry.
'It's one of the most humbling feelings of my career, and I've been through a lot of different things,' she said. 'I almost feel like my own hero. It's hard to believe that I doubted myself on a couple of those days because it was mentally tough and physically draining, but I just pushed on. And if you keep pushing, you're going to make it.'
Her goal is to encourage more California National Guard females to join the infantry.
THE 'LEADERS FIRST' STRATEGY
The National Guard Bureau has developed a 'Leader's First' policy on integrating women into combat units; before junior enlisted Soldiers can be recruited into combat arms positions, the unit must have at least two female leaders - either officers or NCOs - of the same field in place first.
Baltezore said that after going through the course with two other females, she understands the importance of having female leadership in place first.
'I kind of forgot what it feels like to be that minority because there are so many women in the MPs,' she said. 'But now I realize that it's better to have that leadership to help guide you through whatever difficulty you might face as a woman in a male-dominated world.'
For the past several months, Baltezore has been reaching out to the MP units and other colleagues encouraging female leaders to join her.
In an email she sent out in May, she said, 'I know of several junior enlisted Soldiers that want to be in the infantry, but cannot because of this policy. We are looking for strong, tenacious leaders that can pave the way.'
She went on to acknowledge the hard road ahead and the naysayers who will try to deter them, but said, 'The reward of making a difference, fostering positive change and finally being formally recognized as combat fighters is worth all the trouble.'
Sgt. Susana Bran has answered her call. Bran had always been interested in the infantry, but when she enlisted in 2011, it was not yet open to females.
She transferred to the 1-184th Infantry Regiment, C Company in April and is awaiting a school date.
Although she is nervous to make such a significant career change, she said Baltezore has inspired her.
'She was just super motivating in the way she talks about it,' Bran said. 'So I'm going to do this and I'm going to put my heart and mind into it.
Horan, the former operations officer of the 1-185th Infantry Battalion who is now the Recruiting and Retention Battalion commander, said the policy makes female integration a slow process. Despite the fact that Bran will be the second female leader within the CNG infantry, her and Baltezore are in different units, so both will need at least one more leader in their units before lower enlisted females can be recruited.
'The Recruiting and Retention Battalion is committed to bringing female Soldiers into the infantry,' Horan said. 'Since we have the Leaders First policy, I need as many female leaders that are in the California Army National Guard that want to go into the infantry. I'm sitting on hundreds of [lower enlisted] female applicants that I believe would want to join the infantry, but cant.'
He said the first step for female leaders interested in joining is to take the Occupational Physical Assessment Test, a gender-neutral assessment of a Soldier's fitness level. The RRB can administer this test at its eight sites around the state.
FEMALES IN OTHER COMBAT ARMS FIELDS
The infantry is not the only, or even the first, combat arms field in the California National Guard to begin integrating women. Staff Sgt. Alexandra Travison was the first female to join combat arms in the CNG when she graduated Fire Control Specialist school, a branch of field artillery, in February 2017.
After serving as a personnel specialist since she enlisted in 2004, Travison transferred to Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1-143rd Field Artillery Regiment in March 2016. She held a full-time position in the logistics section until she was able to get a school date. Now that she is a fully qualified field artillery Soldier, she is a fire direction control chief and the unit's training NCO.
'I've always been a strong advocate of trying something new and doing things that might be out of your comfort zone,' Travison said. 'Field artillery was always off-limits to females before, so it was kind of interesting to me. And also, shooting the big guns is pretty cool.'
Travison believes combat arms units only stand to benefit from female integration. She said women can bring a different outlook, a different thought process and new ideas.
Her supervisor, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Moverley, an assistant operations NCO with 1-143rd Field Artillery Regiment, said he has always believed that women should be integrated into combat roles.
'I don't think gender should have any effect on somebody's ability to go into combat,' he said. 'I believe that as long as you have the intelligence to accomplish whatever your job is, then it shouldn't matter.'
Travison said she joined field artillery with the mindset that she was going to learn, grow and lead to the best of her ability regardless of what anyone else might think about women in combat.
'Inherently, you go into it with preconceived notions on how you might be treated based on your gender,' Travison said. 'But from my experience, the Soldiers that I've had the opportunity to work with have all been extremely professional and very receptive to having a female in their unit. I think that speaks a lot about the California National Guard and the type of leaders we have in place in those combat arms units. It makes me proud to be part of the organization.'
Moverley said he has encouraged Travison to embrace her role as the first female in combat arms in the CNG.
'I believe that her place in history is set and she can actually make some large changes in the California National Guard,' he said. 'That's one of the reasons I told her not to shy away from the fact that she is the first. She didn't like the spotlight, but I told her that there are probably a lot of females out there that want to do combat arms and that she has proven it's doable and that she is accepted.'
Moverley said that he hopes Travison's seamless transition into the unit sets the example for other commands to integrate females as well.
For her part, Travison sees nothing but opportunity for the future of women in combat arms.
'It's a challenging road, obviously,' she said. 'Certain jobs are more physically demanding and others are more mentally challenging, but I believe if a Soldier is physically able and mentally capable of fulfilling the duties and responsibilities required of that position and the needs of the unit and the California Army National Guard, then man, have at it! Go for it! Don't let anything hold you back.'