Meet the Top NCO from Florida’s 53rd Infantry Brigade

Florida National Guard SSG Aidana Baez with her practice "ruck" weighing 45 pounds - 10 more pounds that in competition - for training marches.

Florida National Guard SSG Aidana Baez with her practice “ruck” weighing 45 pounds – 10 more pounds than what is used in the competition.

The top Non-Commissioned Officers from the Florida Army National Guard this weekend are at Camp Blanding vying for the title of “Florida NCO of the year.”

It is two days of physical competitions, weapons and skills contests, a six-mile “ruck” march and tests on Army regulations.

Representing the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Pinellas Park, is Staff Sergeant Aidana Baez. She won NCO competitions at the company level and battalion level to earn the top brigade honor.

“I like to joke that the Non-Commissioned Officer of the year for the infantry brigade wears a skirt,” Baez said. “Cause I wear a skirt with my uniform and I think that’s fantastic.”

Active Guard Reserves from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team do PT, physical training, in the parking lot of their Pinellas Park, FL headquarters.

Active Guard Reserves from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team do PT, physical training, in the parking lot of their Pinellas Park, FL headquarters.

The petite soldier beat out competitors from the two infantry battalions, a field artillery regiment and a cavalry unit.

“They were all men, and I was just another competitor,” Baez said. “Maybe they didn’t see it until the “ruck March” that I meant business. But, it wasn’t like a blowout. They all did really well and we all encouraged each other.”

Baez said her strength in the competition is knowing the Army regulations which is a sweet irony because she almost got thrown out of the regular Army 11 years ago.

“My first duty station was Fort Drum, New York, not an easy duty station and I was not an easy soldier to deal with,” Baez confessed. “I had attitude, I was insubordinate, I got in plenty of trouble. And then, the day had come where I did too much. I was getting kicked out of the Army. My paperwork was done.”

Baez holds some of the ribbons and medals she's earned during 14 years in the military and two deployments, one to Iraq and the other to Kuwait.

Baez holds some of the ribbons and medals she’s earned during 14 years in the military and two deployments, one to Iraq and the other to Kuwait.

But the base chaplain and several NCOs stepped up in her defense. She was given a rehabilitative transfer to a new unit. Baez finished her hitch with the regular Army and then moved back to Florida and joined the National Guard.

She’s now a staff sergeant known for giving second chances to her soldiers, but they have to earn it.

With 14 years of service to her credit, Baez is on a mission to become Florida’s Top Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year. If she wins, Baez will advance to the regional NCO completion in the Virgin Islands.


Women in the Military: An NPR Series Continues

Photo courtesy of the BBB Military website.

Photo courtesy of the BBB Military website.

The NPR series on women in the military continues with a look at the problem of sexual assault. Quil Lawrence reported Wednesday that the Pentagon’s own research showed that more than 1 in 4 women in the military will experience sexual assault during their careers.

About 19,000 sex crimes take place in the military each year, according to the Pentagon’s most recent estimate. Many of the victims are male, but men in the service face the same risk of sexual assault as civilian men do. It’s a different story for women. Women who join the military face a much higher risk of sexual assault than civilian women.

“It’s a complex problem because it involves a culture change,” says Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, the head of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “We have to see a culture change where those victims of this crime are taken seriously at their unit level by every member of their unit, so you don’t see the divisiveness and the lack of support and the feeling of isolation that these victims feel.”

How U.S. families adjust to having a mother or daughter or wife head off to war is the topic of Tuesday’s story. And Monday, the series looked at the battle women have had to wage to get recognized for serving in combat. It dates back to 1779. Continue reading

Taking on Questions About Allowing Women in Combat

Kayla Williams, an Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division, being promoted to SGT/E5 in Tall 'Afar. Photo credit: "Love My Rifle More Than You"/Facebook

Kayla Williams, an Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division, being promoted to SGT/E5 in Tall ‘Afar. Photo credit: “Love My Rifle More Than You”/Facebook

It was January 24th, just a few weeks ago, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced he was lifting the ban on women serving in combat.

While many women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan argue they’ve been in combat for years, they welcomed the news as yet another step in getting rid of gender-based barriers in the military.

But that announcement didn’t automatically open up all roles to women.  Some units, for example the Navy SEALS, can apply for an exemption and  have until 2016 to decide whether or not they want to include women.

Women in Combat: The Changing Roles of Women in the Military” was the online forum sponsored by the Center on National Policy in Washington D.C.

It featured Kayla Williams, a sergeant and Arabic linguist with 101st Airborne, who served almost a year in Iraq. She went on foot patrols with the infantry, yet wasn’t even given the protective plates for her flack vest because as a woman she was not considered in combat.

More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan where there are no more traditional battle lines and everyone is exposed to combat conditions.

“I know I don’t have the right haircut, but I also went to war,” Williams explained when asked by an audience member if women had a harder time transitioning to civilian life. “Feeling invisible, having people ask me if I was allowed to carry a gun because I’m just a girl, having other people ask me if I was in the infantry when that is still not authorized. It really made it harder for me to transition back into a society that had no conception what so ever of what I’ve been through.” Continue reading

Marines Pioneer Program Pairing Women with Combat Units

Lt. Brandy Soublet on the Marine base, 29 Palms in Southern California. Soublet is about as far from the war front as possible at her desk in the California desert, but she's on the front lines of an experiment that could one day put women as close to combat as their male peers. The Penfield, N.Y. woman is one of 45 female Marines assigned this summer to 19 all-male combat battalions. (AP Photo/USMC, Cpl. William J. Jackson)

Lt. Brandy Soublet on the Marine base, 29 Palms in Southern California. (AP Photo/USMC, Cpl. William J. Jackson)

This summer, the U.S. Marine Corps assigned 45 female Marines to 19 all-male combat battalions. It’s an experiment to gradually integrate women into combat units and judge the impact.

Julie Watson writes about the Marine pilot program for women in an  article for, an online magazine for military families. She gives insight into the experiences of active-duty women:

No branch is likely to feel that change more than the Marine Corps.

The small, tight-knit force is the most male of the armed services and prides itself on having the toughest and most aggressive warriors. The Corps historically has higher casualty rates because it is considered to be the “tip of the spear,” or the first to respond to conflicts. It also was among the last military branches to open its doors to women, forming the first female Corps in 1943, according to the Women’s Memorial in Washington D.C.

But changing times are challenging the traditions of the force, long likened to a brotherhood.

Modern warfare has put women in combat like never before over the past decade, even though a 1994 policy bars them from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level, which were considered too dangerous since they are often smaller and closer to combat for longer periods.

A second lawsuit challenging the Department of Defense policy against women in combat was filed last week.

Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Suing to Allow Women in Combat

Captain Zoe Bedell, US Marine Corps Reserves; First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, US Marine Corps; Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt, US Army Reserves; and Major Mary Hegar, Air National Guard – plaintiffs in groundbreaking suit challenging combat exclusion policy — in San Francisco, CA. (Photo courtesy: SWAN)

Four women have filed a legal challenge against Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying the policy that excludes women from combat puts them at a professional disadvantage and is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in a California federal court and includes the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network as a plaintiff along with:

  • Major Mary Jennings Hegar, a combat helicopter pilot in the California Air National Guard;
  • Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, a civil affairs soldier in the Army reserves;
  • Capt. Alexandra Zoe Bedell, a logistics officer in the Marine Corps reserves;
  • 1st Lt. Colleen Farrell, an active-duty Marine air support control officer.

The Executive Director of SWAN, Anu Bhagwati, wrote in a press statement:

Opening all assignments to qualified women and breaking the “brass ceiling” will help transform this culture and bring about the change that our military desperately needs in order to be a truly professional force in the 21st century.

Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain, told the Stars and Stripes the combat exclusion policy does not reflect modern warfare or military values.

“Rather than enforcing a merit-based system, today’s military bars all women, regardless of their qualifications, from access to prestigious and career-enhancing assignments, positions and schools, and thus is directly responsible for making service women second-class citizens.”

The Pentagon spokesman had no comment on the lawsuit, but defended Panetta’s record on women saying he opened up more than 14,000 positions that had been closed to women and lifted a rule not allowing women to live with combat units.

Women in Combat: One Newspaper’s Photographic Tribute

The Christian Science Monitor notes that even though women technically cannot serve in combat the lines between that rule  and their roles they fill has blurred.

Here are a few of the photos the newspaper shares in tribute to the military woman’s role.

Tammy Duckworth, former assistant secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs (l., at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.),lost her legs in combat while piloting a Black Hawk helicopter. “When I’m asked if the country is ready for women in combat, I look down at where my legs used to be and think, ‘Where do you think this happened, a bar fight?’ ” Photo courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor.

Though barred from combat, women in military service do have de facto roles. the photographic tribute includes 15 photos of women who have achieved high ranks despite the handicap of not serving in combat – technically.

Capt. Sara Rodriguez of the Army 101st Airborne Division splashes water on her face during expert field medical badge testing at Fort Campbell, Ky. Women can be “attached” to infantry units but not assigned to them– a policy that puts women in combat but never officially recognizes them. Photo courtesy of Christian Science Monitor.

Most military women will tell you that they do not seek special standards just the opportunity to serve and receive the credit for that service. You can see the full slide show HERE.

Air Force Maj. Allison Black was known as the ‘Angel of Death’ among Taliban fighters because it was her voice calling in airstrikes in the early days of the war in Afghanistan. “As a woman,” she says, “I would be devastated if any man gave up information to protect me [if captured by the enemy]. I would expect to be whooped up on … just like the guys.” Photo by the U.S. Air Force, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor.

You can read the Christian Science Monitor’s article HERE that looks at women in the military.

Naval Academy on Track for Record 2016 Female Class

The U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2011 graduation and commissioning ceremony of 728 ensigns and 260 Marine Corps 2nd lieutenants in Annapolis, Md. Photo by Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge.

As of Monday, 295 young women accepted appointments to the U.S. Naval Academy and that could result in the largest female class in the academy’s history since it began accepting women in 1976.

The dean of admissions, Stephen Latta, told the Naval Academy’s Board of Visitors, that the class of 2010 held the current record number of female students with 272 women. That was about 22 percent of the 2010 class.

Overall, the class of 2016 will be smaller, so the percentage of  female students will be higher and could be more than 24 percent female.

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