29th ID honors Women’s History Month

Chief Warrant Officer Jennifer Keefer, an unmanned aerial systems officer with the 29th Infantry Division, shares her experiences during a forum held at March 3 at Fort Belvoir. Keefer originally enlisted in the Marine Corps but transitioned to the Army later to become a helicopter pilot, something she wasn't able to do as a Marine due to her gender. (Photo by Sgt. Stephanie Cassinos, 29th Infantry Division Public Affairs)

FORT BELVOIR, Va. — In honor of Women’s History Month, the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division invited a diverse panel of female Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers to share their experiences March 3 about what it’s like to serve as a woman in the military.

This training was sponsored by the Virginia National Guard Equal Opportunity Office and is only one part of a series of efforts to increase awareness of diversity within the National Guard and honor those who have paved the way for minority groups in the military.

A remarkable 25 percent of the 29th ID are women, compared to the 16 percent that make up the Virginia National Guard as a whole.

Commanding General of the 29th Infantry Division Maj. Gen. Frank E. Batts,  said that the military has come a long way in integrating women.

“Once you’ve served with females, you’ll wonder why it was any other way,” Batts said.

In this post-9/11 era, it’s increasingly important to understand the issues and perceptions that affect women in the military. Women currently comprise 14 percent of the nation’s veterans, and that number is expected to rise at an average rate of 11,000 women-per-year over the next 20 years, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs recently-released “Women’s Veterans Report.”

This is why a panel of six female Soldiers, Brig. Gen. Janice Igou, Maj. June Copeland, Chief Warrant Officer Jennifer Keefer, Chief Warrant Officer D’juana Goodwin, Sgt. Kimberly Gates and Sgt. Alexandra Rodriguez, came together to discuss why they joined, what the have found most rewarding about the Guard and the challenges they have faced being a female in a male-heavy environment.

Rodriguez, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the men in her family who served in the generations before her, but that her gender has brought on challenges when in positions of leadership.

“I think being a woman in the military, especially with my rank, can be very hard,” she said. “At times, I honestly feel like my opinion is weighted less than that of a male.”

Copeland, a West Point graduate, spoke candidly about being a young Soldier with her own prejudices against male leaders, many who would later surprise her by becoming her greatest mentors.

“Sometimes things have to change, but it’s not until you change personally that you can see the change you’d like to see in the world,” she said.

Copeland said that although prejudices exist, they can be overcome by staying motivated and demonstrating that female Soldiers are just as dedicated to the mission as males.

“When they find that out, mutual respect takes place,” said Copeland. “If you don’t have the patience to get there and let that happen, it always ends up disastrous.”

Igou, the first female to be promoted to general in the Virginia National Guard, said she didn’t feel that gender ever presented too much of a challenge, and that any prejudices she has experienced have only emboldened her.

“I didn’t let that get in my way,” said Igou. “I think that overall, as an organization, the military does a very good job of providing opportunities for minorities, whatever group you fall into.”

Igou admits that she originally joined for monetary benefits, but discovered a love for structure and discipline that never existed in her life before becoming a Soldier, something she has developed a deep gratitude for.

Soldiers of the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division listen to a panel of diverse female Soldiers speak about their experiences being women in the military March 3 at Fort Belvoir during Women's History Month. (Photo by Sgt. Stephanie Cassinos, 29th Infantry Division Public Affairs)

Keefer, an unmanned aerial systems officer with the 29th ID, originally enlisted in the Marine Corps and deployed during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

She later joined the Army for the opportunity to become a helicopter pilot — something she couldn’t do in the Marines because of her gender.

Keefer said that although the attitude toward women in the military has definitely improved since she joined in the ‘80s, many fields are still male-centric, and that women still feel a lot of pressure to show they are as proficient at their jobs as men.

“You’re always going to have to prove yourself and give 110 percent over and over again,” Keefer said, adding that despite any challenges, she still feels blessed in her career.

“I feel honored to have opportunities that weren’t present to the women before me,  or even now to the women across the world,” Keefer said.

While there are still infantry and combat positions within the military that women are not able to enlist for, the opportunities have grown considerably within a span of only decades — not only for women, but for minorities as a whole.

“I really appreciate the fact that the military is for the masses,” said Igou. “We can all find our way to success if we just want to give and be the best that we can be.”