CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Raised rough and tumble in the modest midwestern city of Mineral Point, Wis., Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Robin Baker came from an extended family dominated by males.
“I grew up running around and playing in the dirt like Indiana Jones,” Baker said. “It was a lot of exploring, running around, and sports. I definitely wasn’t afraid to get dirty. That’s for sure.”
It was a humble enough proving ground for the woman who would become a pioneer in one of the Marine Corps’ most male-dominated specialties.
Baker, a combat engineer with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command-Southwest, pinned on the rank of gunnery sergeant in October, midway through her deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan. She is the first female combat engineer to own the cherished Marine rank and title: “Gunny.”
She’s also not finished with coming in first.
An unabashed advocate for the merits of hard work and reputation, Baker more or less stumbled upon the Marine Corps after dabbling with college.
“I was bored,” she laughed, recounting how she ended up in the recruiter’s office.
“He showed me the recruiting video of the explosions,” Baker recalled. “I was like, ‘I want to do that job -- right there.’ Luckily, I got it.”
Baker entered the Marine Corps in November 2000. She spent her holiday season with other recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., where her 13-year career began.
After recruit training, Baker completed her specialty training as a combat engineer and reported to her first unit at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“Being in our [military specialty], you’re not going to find a whole lot of females,” said Baker, whose first unit boasted only four other females. “It’s pretty physical, and I was doing everything the guys would do. There was no special treatment whatsoever.”
Baker fell under an uncompromising microscope from the beginning. She refused to separate herself from the rigors imposed upon her male counterparts. She completed the same training, took part in the same missions, and accepted the same punishments for failure.
“When the field first opened up [for females], there was a lot of, ‘Why are you here? You can’t hack [it]. You are the weakest link,’” Baker said. “That drives me even more because I’m not. When we finish whatever it is we’re doing, and I’m not the last person, and there’re people behind me, I’m not the weakest link … I belong here.”
She found no easy paths or simple shortcuts. She didn’t even bother to look. Instead, Baker said she embraced the physically demanding work and recognized it as an opportunity to prove herself and advance.
“I was one of them,” Baker said. “It makes a difference to earn respect from a group like that. Your reputation will precede you. It doesn’t happen overnight. It certainly doesn’t happen after a month or two. But once they realize you are there to do a job and do it professionally … they will protect you with their lives.”
Baker said she found a unique bond amongst her engineer peers. They relied upon each other’s resilience.
“We’re crazy,” she proudly acknowledged. “It’s being in a group of people who are your family through thick and thin and who have the same goals. Our ties are strong.”
Baker attained the rank of sergeant within her first four-year enlistment and continued to push the gender expectations she faced.
She joined the Camp Pendleton shooting team and received accolades for her performance. Baker graduated first in her class at the Platoon Sergeants Course and became the first female master breacher after successfully completing the Marine Corps’ Urban Breachers Course.
She embraced deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq, where she served on specially organized Lioness Teams in 2006 and 2008. Baker operated in direct support of Marine infantry units while facing down gender biases along the way.
“I imagine it’s the same way for males when they go someplace new,” she said. “You have to prove yourself. That’s the toughest thing about being a female. Even for as long as I have been in, every place I go, I still have to prove myself.”
It has been a long road, said Baker, noting she’s made a mark on her fellow Marines along the way.
“Over time, the Marines who have worked with you go to other places, and people hear about you,” Baker said. “The good thing about my name is when people talk about me it’s not a bad thing.”
Baker accepted no excuses from her fellow Marines and expected nothing less in return. She lived by a “If I can do it, why can’t you?” attitude and actively found ways to stand out among her male counterparts.
She eventually took her hard-earned experiences to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where she became one of only two female Marines to ever teach at the combat engineer school. Baker spent more than three years mentoring hundreds of young service members passing through the course.
“I started right where you are,” said Baker, recounting her conversations with students. “Your reputation is everything. Once you tarnish your reputation, it’s hard to get it back.”
To be sure, Baker never lost her passion for explosions. The same excitement that drew her into the Marine Corps as a young recruit simply grew.
"I like blowing stuff up,” she admitted. “I get a rush out of the shock wave. But I would have to say after all my years being a combat engineer, the best part is being able to see the fruits of my labor. It’s that instant gratification.”
Baker is currently the only female out of nearly 160 gunnery sergeants within her specialty. She already has her eyes on the next step up.
“I like to be one of the first or one of the few,” Baker said. “I’ve been told the majority of my career, ‘You can’t do this. Why are you here?’ I just like to prove them wrong.”