Female Soldiers Take on Unexpected Roles

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Women redefine roles in military
U.S. Army Pfc. Jessica Kling, a horizontal construction engineer with the South Dakota Army National Guard’s 842nd Engineer Company, takes commands from her ground guide while backing up a dump truck during the Battle of the Blades training exercise in Spearfish, S.D., Oct. 4, 2014. (Sgt. Patrick Wolfe/South Dakota National Guard)

SPEARFISH, S.D. -- You might not expect a local female hair stylist or preschool teacher to be operating or fixing bulldozers, scrapers and dump trucks outside of their job, but for women serving in the South Dakota Army National Guard's 842nd Engineer Company, it is common.

These female soldiers are breaking the stereotypes of what it means to serve as a woman in today's National Guard, and they serve in unexpected roles.

"More and more female soldiers are enlisting in positions that have been traditionally perceived as male-only positions, such as heavy equipment operator or diesel mechanic within the 842nd," said Capt. Matt Sadler, 842nd commander. "I've also seen other companies within the state showing the same trend, females enlisting as truck drivers, artillery, etc."

Of the unit's approximately 160 members, 31 are women. Most serve as heavy equipment operators or heavy wheeled-vehicle mechanics. Based in Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Sturgis, the unit is a horizontal construction company, which uses heavy machinery to build roads, airstrips, combat outposts and forward operating bases.

"Working with loaders and scrapers is a bit out of my comfort zone," said Pfc. Jessica Kling, who teaches preschool in Lemmon and operates heavy equipment in the 842nd. "I wouldn't choose to do this in my civilian life, but the National Guard gives me the opportunity to do something new and exciting."

These engineers also serve the state in the event of emergencies, such as building levees during flood operations, digging fire lines to suppress wildland fires and assisting emergency crews during winter storms.

"I never would have imagined doing any of this before I joined," Kling said. "I figured I'm a girl, I don't need to do that kind of stuff, but once you start, it's kind of fun."

Operating large equipment, such as a 24,000-pound excavator capable of digging 14 feet deep, can make these women feel empowered.

"High and mighty," Kling said of how she feels when operating the large powerful road graders, bulldozers and excavators. "They are really intimidating at first. ... I think everyone has felt that way."

For most soldiers, the intimidation factor tends to fade after spending two weeks behind the wheel during annual training.

"I've learned the most at annual training," Kling said. "There is a lot of work and planning that goes into building a road. I didn't know I was capable of doing this, and once you see the end result, it's pretty cool."

For many of the women, who work full time in what many people might consider traditional female careers, they get surprised or shocked reactions when explaining their job as soldiers to their customers.

"Whenever I have a client in my chair and they ask about my life outside of cosmetology school, I tell them I am a construction worker in the National Guard," said Pfc. Savannah Wheeler of Box Elder. "Their faces drop, and they are like, 'What?'"

Choosing to be a mechanic in the National Guard was not a surprise for the family members of Spc. Kayleigh Lane of Sturgis, who owns a hair salon in Belle Fourche.

"As a child, I grew up working on cars with my dad," Lane said. "Mechanical work intrigues me, but I didn't want to do it full time, so I figured the National Guard would be the best way to do it."

Many of the women joined as mechanics in the 842nd to become more educated in maintaining and repairing vehicles. Heavy-wheeled mechanics spend 13 weeks at advanced individual training learning how automotive engines work and how to troubleshoot to repair mechanical problems.

"I wanted to be a mechanic to learn how to fix my own car," said Wiyaka Stands of Mission. "My car broke down in high school and it's expensive to fix, so I wanted to learn how to do it myself."

The women of the 842nd say they have grown personally and professionally and would recommend other women considering an engineering job to join their ranks.

"Operating outside of my comfort zone has given me confidence," Wheeler said. "That is why I would suggest women join the 842nd. This unit has allowed me to push my boundaries and accomplish things I never thought I'd do."

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