Women Break Ground in Combat Roles

Soldiers with Battery C, 1st Battalion, 321st Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 18th Fires Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, fire 155mm rounds using an M777 Howitzer weapons system, on Forward Operating Base Bostick, Afghanistan. Credit Spc. Evan D. Marcy

The question of whether women can serve in Army roles previously restricted to men is being answered on Fort Bragg, where the male-only world of artillery has opened to female soldiers.

Last summer, the 18th Fires Brigade began a pilot program aimed at introducing female officers to what were once all-male units.

The program began even before then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the repeal of rules against women serving in male-only positions.

Nearly a year later, the brigade is preparing to break ground again when it receives the first female-enlisted soldiers in an artillery unit in May.

Five women officers now serve in the 18th Fires Brigade.

One, 1st Lt. Shannon Syphus, said she fell in love with artillery while at officer candidate school more than three years ago. At the time, Syphus said, she did not know she was barred from commanding a cannon platoon.

But that changed with the 18th Fires Brigade. Syphus took leadership of 1st Platoon, C Battery, 3rd Battalion, 321st Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, in November.

"I didn't know prior that it wasn't open," Syphus said. "But I just fell in love. I can get on the radio and call for fire and something explodes. I love the technical aspects -- the math and the precision. You can't find that with any other job in the Army."

Since joining the unit, Syphus said, she has been treated with nothing but respect.

Artillerymen have to be strong enough to lift a 100-pound, 155 mm round.

They also have to know physics, math and meteorology to make the calculations necessary to put a round on target from miles away.

Sgt. Justin Clawson, a gun chief in Syphus' platoon, was convinced she would not be able to cut it.

"This is an all-male world," Clawson said. "I really felt a female couldn't do what we do. But she changed the entire battery's mind.

"I know she can lead us."

Capt. Rusty Varnado, a brigade spokesman, said Syphus and the other female officers are treated no different than their male counterparts.

"She is in the same position I was when I was a lieutenant," he said. "The soldiers just see a lieutenant, and the women do just as well, if not better, than the guys."

Lt. Col. Joe Bookard, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 321st Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, said Syphus is a role model to female soldiers.

"We expect her to know her job," Bookard said. "It's a tough certification process. She performs very, very well."

Bookard said there was little concern that problems would arise from having a woman take command of 40 male soldiers used to living in the male-only artillery world.

"In my business, we don't work off gut feelings. We work off facts," he said.

The brigade commander, Col. Robert Morschauser, agreed.

"There were some integration issues people said we may have, but we've had no issues whatsoever," he said. "They've done very well."

Morschauser, who saw women pulling more than their own weight when called to do so in combat situations in Iraq, said he wants the best soldiers, no matter their gender.

"I'm looking for the best unit," he said. "I don't care what you look like."

Syphus is fit, articulate and smart, officials said.

She's also no stranger to being surrounded by males.

One of eight children, the native of Pasadena, Calif., has seven brothers.

She was one of only three women to graduate in her 150-person class at the field artillery basic officer leadership course.

"Being around the guys is no big deal," she said. "As long as we don't pay attention to the fact that we're different, the guys don't care."

Syphus credited her command for helping her realize one of her career goals, and she looks forward to having other female soldiers realize they can do anything they want.

"I see the artillery world opening up," she said. "Not only artillery, but the Army world."

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