BOISE, Idaho – Speckled with engine oil and coated with a layer of dust, 23-year-old Army Spc. Samantha Brumley rummages through a larger-than-life toolbox to begin work with her fellow tank mechanics on servicing an Abrams M1A2 System Enhancement Package Tank in the high desert area southeast from here.
Her team is at the Orchard Training Center conducting annual training in support of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Heavy Brigade Combat Team. While the service to the tank’s nuclear, biological and chemical filter system is routine, Brumley’s hands-on support is not. Brumley is the first woman to officially become a tank mechanic in the Oregon Army National Guard.
Switching military jobs
“I wanted to be a nurse. I actually wanted to be a medic when I got in, but that didn’t happen,” said Brumley, who joined the Army at age 17 as a communications specialist. She later switched jobs to become an armament repairer where she maintained and fixed weapon systems. But she wanted more.
A 2013 decision by the Pentagon opened up combat roles to women. This decision provided an opportunity to Brumley. After working near Company F tank mechanics, Brumley, who hails from La Grande, Oregon, was asked if she would like to go to school to become a tank mechanic, a role that traditionally had been held only by men.
Her response was short and direct.
“I’m not a desk-type person. I like getting hands-on. I like getting dirty. So I was like ‘Yeah, I wanna go,’” Brumley reflected.
In the spring of 2014, Brumley was on her way to a military career transition course at the Regional Training Institute in Umatilla, Oregon.
“I never thought I would join the National Guard and be a tank mechanic,” Brumley said. “I certainly never thought I’d be the first woman.”
Tank maintenance course
But she was the first woman to attend the tank mechanics course at the RTI. Brumley said the six-week class taught her more than how to turn wrenches and make adjustments to a tank. It highlighted the adjustments that she, the instructors, and fellow tank mechanics would need to make, as well.
“They didn’t know how to act. They’d always say ‘Sorry, no offense’ every five minutes or they’d see me lifting something and say ‘Oh, that’s too heavy for her. She can’t do this,’” Brumley said. She said the next generation of women looking to break into combat roles need to have thick skin.
“You can’t take offense to a lot of things,” Brumley said. “You just need to be your own person and don’t let the guys get you down.”
Putting knowledge to use
Brumley graduated and returned to the same Company F tank section she had bonded with prior to attending school. This time, she came with the knowledge and official job title allowing her to work side-by-side with the tank mechanics.
This year’s three-week training at the OTC was Brumley’s first annual training mission as a tank mechanic. Her supervisor and peers said she took on every challenge that two-dozen Abrams tanks operating in a sandy landscape could throw at the maintenance section.
“She’s just as good as any soldier out there or even better,” said her section leader Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Hussey. “She’s operated the 70-ton recovery vehicle quite well even though it was her first time ever operating it.”
After 17 years of working on tanks Hussey has seen how the field has changed over time. He said Brumley is treated just like all the other mechanics.
“I always think it’s about the person rather than if they’re a man or a woman for our job as tank mechanics,” Hussey said. “She gets asked to do the same job as everybody else and she’s going to be expected to do the job just as good as everybody else.”
Teamwork is essential
When dealing with parts from a 70-ton tank, mechanics have to work together. For the NBC filter, Brumley works alongside Sgt. Justin Daniel. Daniel is a full-time technician for the Oregon Army National Guard where he already worked with women and said he had seen this transition coming.
“I know it seems like a big deal up top or in the public sometimes, but down here in the real world, it’s no big deal,” said Daniel, a tank mechanic also from La Grande, Oregon. “We just treat each other as soldiers instead of a gender role.”
Brumley said she didn’t have any adjustment coming back to Company F, but acknowledged there may be some friction elsewhere in the military as women take on more front-line functions.
“We’re all soldiers. We all wear the same uniform. Buck up and get used to it,” Brumley said.
She may have wanted to join as a medic, but six years later and now a tank mechanic, Brumley said the Army experience has helped shift her desire from fixing people to fixing vehicles.
“Being a mechanic here helped me discover what being a mechanic is like.” Brumley said. She added that her newly found skills have given her direction for a career when she’s not in uniform.
“I want to be a diesel mechanic,” Brumley said. “I want to work on stuff.”
Keep driving forward
Her supervisor Hussey has this advice for women looking to follow in Brumley’s boot prints, “Don’t let anybody kick you down. Just drive forward.”
Before scrambling into the driver’s seat of the Abrams tank -- another position held predominantly by male soldiers -- Brumley said she is humbled by her potential impact on other women in uniform.
“I’m proud of being the first female tank mechanic, but I don’t like getting called out on it because it’s different,” Brumley said. “It’s just a job and an opportunity. I feel like one of the guys, anyway. All the opportunities I’ve had. I wouldn’t trade it.”
With that, Brumley fires up the Abrams tank and rolls forward -- on track for what comes next.