Women are not allowed to serve in certain combat occupations -- but that's not stopping female engineers from taking on the grueling 28-day Sapper Leader Course, becoming Sapper qualified and wearing the coveted Sapper tab.
"I saw it as a great opportunity to prove to myself I could do it," said Maj. Jennifer Etters, the first female officer Sapper Leader Course graduate in March 2002.
She recalls her schooling in the Sapper Leader Course at Fort Leonard Wood as the hardest thing she has ever done, but is thankful for the demanding training.
"The course taught me a lot about myself and what I could handle physically, mentally and emotionally. I believed it prepared me for some tough situations down the road -- especially in Iraq and Afghanistan," Etters said.
Some female students are the only females in their class. That is because women account for about three percent of all students and about two percent of all graduates.
Etters found this to be true for her; a decade later she laughs about it now.
"It made the living conditions strange at times. There was only one latrine and shower facility, so I would wake up before the guys to knock out hygiene before them. In the evenings, I would either be first, or wait until last. I would try to be as fast as I could to free up the facility," Etters said. "I did end up with more time to study knots."
Etters said being the only female in her class was not always easy, but that didn't change her affection for her profession.
"A few classmates did not want me there, particularly during the patrolling phase," Etters said. "I love being an Engineer and our motto 'Let us try.' I think it's important for any Soldier that truly has the heart of an Engineer be given the chance to be a Sapper."
Six years later, Sapper tab recipient Capt. Emily Hannenberg had a contrasting experience in her class containing 32 Sappers -- four of them women.
"I was very proud to be part of such an amazing group of strong, confident and determined women. It was great to be there with sisters in arms, and I know that because of our hard work we were able to represent women well to our fellow Sappers," Hannenberg said.
According to the Sapper Leader Course's records, the female graduation rate is 35 percent, compared to 52 percent for their male comrades.
"Entry and graduation requirements are the same for female students as they are for male students," said Sgt. 1st Class Troy Winters, Sapper Leader Course chief instructor. "Our instructors are trained to treat all Soldiers equally."
Hannenberg said she experienced this as she and her classmates were held to the same high expectations.
"There is absolutely zero difference between the standard for female and male students. Females never once were given a different packing list for a ruck, a slower time standard for a run, or a lighter weapons system during patrolling. In my experience, the Sapper Leader Course did an exceptional job of being gender blind and adhering to unwavering high standards of performance for all candidates," Hannenberg said.
Although the Sapper Leader Course is designed to be brutal, both Etters and Hannenberg have fond memories of the time they spent on Fort Leonard Wood.
Etters particularly enjoyed her hands-on education at the demolition range.
"I placed a crater charge to blow the turret off of the tank at the demo range after I was basically told not to. When we pulled the M81 and that turret went flying in the air, it was awesome," Etters said. "The Sapper instructor called my name, and I proceeded to smoke myself; it was worth it."
Despite the frigid Missouri climate in February, Hannenberg's favorite memory came from the time she spent as a weapons squad leader.
"During the initiation of an ambush, I laid behind my gunners and tapped their feet in order to control their rates of fire on the target -- it was really exciting to make the guns sing like that," Hannenberg said.
She enjoyed the challenge of being a Sapper so much that she entered the Best Sapper competition in 2011 with teammate 1st Lt. Robert West.
"The BSC was absolutely the most difficult event I have done in my military career stateside so far. We had a great time participating. Rob and I really enjoyed all of the exciting ranges, tasks, movements and challenges we faced during the competition," Hannenberg said. "I was pushed to my absolute limit and am extremely proud that Rob and I were able to make it to the last day of the competition, though not to the final event."
Once again, she was impressed by the gender equality she encountered.
"I do not recall even once the topic of female competitors being addressed by the cadre," Hannenberg said. "Sappers are Sappers, and I think that is an excellent way to run things. I certainly enjoyed being treated as an equal by all of the competitors and the cadre."
Cadet Micala Hicks paved the way for future women Sappers as the first female Sapper Leader Course graduate in June 1999. Since then, 125 females have taken the course, some of them more than once.
"The majority of the females that come through this course don't expect to be treated any differently," Winters said. "There have been a number of female Soldiers that have out-performed the males physically and mentally -- it's very impressive."
To date, 46 women have graduated from the Sapper Leader Course, all of them officers -- one of them with honors.
"I didn't know going into the course that a woman hadn't been the honor graduate before, but I'm proud to have shown that women can do it," said 1st Lt. Elizabeth Betterbed, 2010 Sapper Leader Course honor graduate. "It was a challenge, but felt good to complete and I'm grateful for the training."
All of the female Sappers interviewed have a similar view about the Sapper tab -- that it looks great on every Engineer -- man or woman.
"I think it is important for any Soldier that truly has the heart of an Engineer be given the chance to be a Sapper. It is important that women of this branch be given the opportunity alongside our male counterparts to show the unity of diverse Soldiers in the Engineer Regiment," Etters said.
Etters is currently stationed in Vicenza, Italy with U.S. Army Africa. She said people often point out her Sapper tab and inquire about it.
"Because we no longer wear the Engineer castle on our Army Combat Uniform, it identifies me as a Sapper and an Engineer," Etters said. "Often times, they say they are impressed or they have never seen one on a female before. I usually just say 'thanks.' Sometimes I have to explain what a Sapper is and where the word comes from."
Hannenberg is currently finishing her master's degree before heading off to the 249th Engineer Battalion at Fort Belvoir, Va.
She too gets asked several questions about the tab she wears. Hannenberg is proud to have a Sapper tab, as it is a constant reminder to her of the valuable life lessons she learned in the course.
"Most people ask me if I went through the Sapper Leader Course to get it, which seems like an odd question, as that is the only way to earn it. I tell them that it was an extremely rewarding and challenging experience, and that I am so grateful I had the opportunity to go through the course. If they are a Soldier, I often recommend that they try to go if they have the opportunity," Hannenberg said.
Despite the fact that the course took a toll on her body, Hannenberg wouldn't trade her Sapper tab and what it means to her for anything.
"Once I graduated, my body essentially revolted and I became very ill for a few weeks.," Hannenberg said. "My tab reminds me of what I was able to accomplish during Sapper Leader Course and the high standard of personal and professional conduct I must continue to uphold."
She feels like successfully graduating gave her more than confidence in her own technical and tactical abilities -- it changes the way her Soldiers see her, which Hannenberg considers to be the key to positive mentorship.
"While I absolutely do not believe that badges and tabs define leadership, I do believe that when leaders wear the badges and tabs that they have earned, it instills confidence and pride in their Soldiers."
Hannenberg said it is especially influential for young Soldiers to a see a woman wearing a Sapper tab.
"It helps to break mindsets about female inadequacy or limits being placed on what females can or should do in the military," she said.