Boise Woman is Nation's First Female Tank Crew Member

M1A2 Abrams Battle Tank
M1A2 Abrams Battle Tank

A member of the Idaho Army National Guard last week became the nation's first female enlisted soldier to graduate from the U.S. Army's M1 Armor Crewman School.

Sgt. 1st Class Erin Smith joined the Guard as a combat medic in 2001 and has served overseas tours in Bosnia in 2002 and in Iraq in 2004. Most recently, she took advantage of a loosening of regulations that previously prohibited women from serving in combat roles.

An M1 armor crewman is responsible for operating armored equipment such as the M1A1 and M1A2 Abrams tanks.

Last December, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the the U.S. military would open all positions to women, without exception.

"I was interested in the idea of being an Army tanker long before talk about integration so when the opportunity came up I decided to go for it," Smith said in a written release. "It was intimidating at first -- the fear of failure or not being good enough -- but it's been an awesome experience."

The Idaho Army National Guard tried in 2013 to obtain permission to train women for combat roles, but was unsuccessful, said Maj. Chris Borders, a Guard spokesman. National military officials said a change was coming but did not want National Guard units to open up that kind of training to women before it was approved at the national level.

"It shows how the Idaho National Guard is leading the way," Borders said. "Not only does it open up more opportunities for females, it opens this up for a whole new group of possible recruits."

Borders served with Smith during the 2004 deployment to Iraq with the Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team. He lauded her abilities as a soldier.

"She's pretty gung-ho, as they say," Borders said.

Training lasts 15 weeks. Those chosen for the program must meet aptitude test standards, be able to frequently lift items weighing 50 pounds, occasionally lift 100 pounds, and meet academic, physical and psychiatric standards.

Graduates must show expertise at operating the Abrams tank across varied terrain while receiving and relaying battle orders. They must also be able to load and fire the tank's direct-fire weapons, read maps and operate its targeting acquisition system. And, they must be versed in U.S. military combat doctrine.

"Any doubts I had about not being accepted or being treated different I no longer have," Smith said. "My peers, the leadership and instructors throughout the training have all been extremely supportive."

Smith, who spent part of her childhood in Weiser and later moved to Boise, said she would encourage other women to follow in her footsteps. Borders said Smith will serve as a mentor and leader of future female enlisted combat professionals in the Idaho Army National Guard.

The Idaho Army National Guard has nearly 400 women -- 13 percent --among its ranks of nearly 3,000 personnel. Altogether, women account for 15 percent of those serving in the military nationally.

"We're an all-volunteer force, so we need access to every talented Idahoan who can bring something to the fight, whether female or male," said Brig. Gen. John Goodale, assistant adjutant general and commander of the Idaho Army National Guard. "Our military is always adapting and implementing change. This is how we remain relevant and ready to address both global threats abroad and local emergencies here at home."

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