FORT GORDON, Ga. – Army Reserve Pfc. Mary Tang has no problem looking a challenge in the eye. Although she stands only 4 feet 10 inches tall, the Columbus, Ohio, native has quickly become known for meeting challenges head-on since joining the 490th Signal Company (Tactical Installation Network–Enhanced).
Tang, a cable systems installer, has been training since early this year with her unit for a deployment to Afghanistan. Scheduled to leave later in the year, Tang said she is excited to serve her country. “I really enjoy the military,” Tang said, adding that she would like to become an officer. “It gives you a break from the routine, … and you have your mind pushed constantly.”
As a unit supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, the 490th Signal Company will dispatch signal support teams throughout Afghanistan. Tang and her teammates will provide network installation, quality assurance testing and troubleshooting as Army and joint task forces transition from tactical to semi-permanent automated communications. That means pulling cable, falling in on equipment used by a previous unit, or hauling equipment from base to base.
Tang, who said she weighs only 92 pounds, knows it is important that her co-workers see that she won’t compromise a mission because of her stature.
“We handle a lot of heavy equipment as signal soldiers,” Tang said. “I will get help from a battle buddy when a piece of equipment requires more than one soldier to handle it, but if it is something like an assault pack or personal protective equipment, I tell anyone offering to help, ‘No, thanks.’… I just want to make sure they are not worried about me.”
At 5 feet 2 inches tall, Staff Sgt. Israel Ramirez feels a kinship with Tang. The noncommissioned officer in charge of the company’s personal security detail team, Ramirez has served in the Army for 17 years, including successful deployments to Macedonia, Kosovo and Iraq. He said it doesn’t matter about your size, but how you train yourself or build yourself up for a task.
“I was as light as Tang when I joined the Army,” Ramirez said. “When we talked about her potential, I told her, ‘It’s not the size of the punch, but what comes behind the punch.’”
Ramirez said the Army doesn’t see size generally as a limitation to job effectiveness. “No soldier’s background, ethnicity or size should [limit your ability] as long as your mind and heart are in it,” Ramirez declared. “Equipment will be heavy or valuable or require a secret clearance,” he continued. “The point is, you don’t look at a problem as ‘I can’t do’ but as ‘How am I going to make it happen?’”
Tang has adopted the “can-do” attitude and applied it throughout her training. The first week of June, Tang accepted the unenviable job of student leader during a secure and nonsecure Internet protocol course here. That meant making sure everyone stayed focused in a class that sometimes ran 10 hours long while routinely subjected to the sweltering Georgia heat. Tang also was known for encouraging her fellow troops during early morning physical training sessions.
Pfc. Brittney Ricker-Schmitt, a cable systems installer from Lima, Ohio, said Tang sets a standard for everyone in a lot of ways. “A lot of people will complain about having long workdays or having to do PT,” she said. “Tang’s response would be ‘I don’t know why they are complaining -- this is easy.”
Ricker-Schmitt has been a classmate and battle-buddy to Tang in numerous training events. She said Tang has never let another person’s perception stop her from sharing her thoughts. “She’s always out front showing leadership, getting people to want to push themselves,” Ricker-Schmitt said. “She likes to be heard, to be loud and acknowledged.”
Tang said any motivation she projects comes from an emotional place. “Life is short,” she said. “I wanted the chance to realize my potential, and through the Army Reserve I’ve met so many people who feel like I do.”
Capt. Emil Hawkins, the company commander, said Tang’s mental approach gives her the edge soldiers need to do their duty successfully. A New Orleans native, Hawkins said Tang shows everyone that she is not afraid of challenges or obstacles and is also able to engage a peer or senior official respectfully.
“Tang has a lot to offer technically and physically, even though she is small in stature,” Hawkins said. “She brings attitude -- without overcompensating -- that’s bigger than she is.”
Just over a year ago, Tang wasn’t sure if she had enough nerve to enter a recruiting station. She expressed an interest in joining the Army at 18, but ultimately chose not to enlist because of complicated family matters; her father is Chinese, and her mother is Cambodian.
“My mother and father don’t speak English well and needed help with managing their bills,” Tang said. “They needed someone to take them places, and no one was in a better position to help them than me.”
Tang said although she’d never had any direct dealings with the military, her interest in joining never faded. As the years went by, Tang said, she decided she needed to do more for herself.
“I just wanted a change of pace -- specifically, something different and fast,” she said. “I felt a lot of guilt [over possibly leaving my parents], but I needed to do something different.”
After a few visits with a local recruiter, Tang decided she would join the Army Reserve. Deciding not to tell her parents until the night before she visited a military entrance processing station, Tang said the decision grew increasingly stressful.
“When I told them the news, they were, of course, upset with me,” Tang said. “We got into a big argument, because they didn’t understand my choice.
“The whole time I was at MEPS, I was thinking about the repercussions of my decision,” she continued. “When I was getting my blood drawn, I kept thinking, ‘Should I just get up and leave?’ Even when I was waiting to sign the contract, I kept wondering if things would work out. But I knew I needed to make this choice.”
Tang said her parents slowly have begun to accept her decision. “They knew I was committed, but were generally worried about my health,” she said. “Over time, especially after I returned from basic and [advanced individual training], they have not been as opposed.”
Hawkins said soldiers like Tang remind him not to judge a book by its cover.
“Self-realization makes a soldier effective,” he said. “[Tang] realizes what she brings to the table, whether it is physical fitness, technical proficiency, and even combatives. You may beat her, but you will come out with some scars. … That’s what we need from soldiers -- someone who is not afraid of a challenge.”