Lieutenant Colonel Says Opportunities and Benefits for Women Growing Steadily
In honor of Women’s History Month, On Your Guard takes a look at 21st century changes that are providing more opportunities for female Soldiers through the perspective of a West Point graduate who is now a leader in the Florida Army National Guard.
Fresh out of West Point in 2000, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Elizabeth Evans chose Fort Hood, Texas, as her first duty station. As the largest Army installation in the country, she expected to find the widest range of opportunities for a female civil engineer like herself.
But out of 10 engineering battalions there, 9 were combat mechanized engineering battalions, restricted to men only, with women allowed to serve only in support roles within each headquarters company. The other was a construction battalion that was open to both men and women serving as an engineer platoon leader, but it had a waiting list more than two years long.
LTC Evans decided to request assignment to the 1st Cavalry Division’s 20th Engineer Battalion, knowing she would be able to serve only in a support role. It was here that she served as a support platoon leader within a support company, handling logistics for her male engineer peers and friends from West Point, but her heart was in commanding a combat or construction unit.
She was later told that 80 percent of the Army’s construction formations, which were 100% open to women, were in the Army’s reserve components – the Army Reserves or Army National Guard, causing her to question if the opportunity for a female engineer officer to lead engineer Soldiers would ever truly exist for her or others on Active Duty.
So, in 2005, frustrated by the lack of options available, LTC Evans left the Army for the Florida Army National Guard, which has a dual mission of serving the Nation and responding to local emergencies, like extreme weather events.
“When I looked at the mission of the National Guard and the fact that they responded to states of emergency that the governor requests help on, I thought, ‘This is awesome. If a hurricane hits, we come in with our engineer equipment, and we get to help our citizens and neighbors restore the community that I will be a part of.’”
Because Guard service is part-time for the majority of its members, she also had the opportunity to pursue her engineering career in the private sector as a superintendent and project manager in residential and commercial construction. She is a certified General Contractor and serves as the Southeast U.S. Director of Construction for Source Refrigeration and HVAC, Inc.
Within 6 months of moving to Florida, she was asked to command a Horizontal Construction Company in Live Oak, Fla., finally having the opportunity to command engineers as an engineer officer. She is now Commander of the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion outside of Tampa, a battalion that is comprised of a combat engineer company, signal company, military intelligence company, and a headquarters company.
“I had multiple opportunities for command which never would have happened had I stayed in the active Army,” she says.
Still, LTC Evans has seen a lot of progress as far as the Army allowing equal opportunity for men and women, and in attitudes of acceptance of female Soldiers as equals in her 17 years of military service, pointing to these signs of progress: women were accepted and have graduated from Sapper School, the combat engineers’ defining school for their field. Women have been accepted to and graduated from Army Ranger School, which is the Army’s premier tactical leadership course; female Soldiers were successfully attached to Special Forces in Cultural Support Teams in Afghanistan; and in 2016, the Department of Defense opened all military direct combat jobs to women.
LTC Evans, who led 300 missions in a combat zone in Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, is a proponent of equal opportunity, but ultimately, the fit needs to make sense.
“If there’s a high-speed female Soldier that can throw on a ruck and march as long and as far and as well as her male peers, then she should absolutely have that opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think every male Soldier is right for some of the positions in the Army, just like I don’t think every female Soldier is right for every position in the Army. But, if you evaluate Soldiers as a person and put the best person in the job, then I think we’re going in the right direction.”
But even just last year, LTC Evans said she felt she had to plead her case as to why she was the right person to serve as a task force commander for a counter-narcotics mission training military components in three Central American countries.
“There was some hesitation: is a female going to get the same respect from these other countries because they don’t have females in leadership roles and because of the cultural differences between us?” she recalls. In the end, she was told by several high ranking officials, both in the U.S. and in Central America, “You proved to us that this can work. Women can do this and do it with record-setting results.”
For LTC Evans, that mission was a chance to inspire cultural change in other countries. In her own unit and within the Florida Army National Guard, she enjoys the opportunity to develop and mentor Soldiers.
“I think I’m extremely fortunate to be a female in the Army National Guard because of the opportunities I have to be a role model to others, both male and female. I have the ability to show younger Soldiers coming in that anything is possible regardless of your gender.”
Her advice for anyone considering joining the Guard is gender neutral.
“Go in all in. Push yourself. Don’t be scared. Challenge yourself to be more and do more because you will get 10 times in return whatever you put in.”
She looks at the Guard’s future as being full of possibilities.
“There are great opportunities. We could sit here and focus on the past where there were restrictions on females serving in certain roles, but let’s all move past that. Let’s appreciate where we’ve come from, but let’s focus on the opportunities all Soldiers have to lead our Army into the future.”
So, if you are curious about all the opportunities within the Guard, our job board is a great place to start. You can search Guard careers by keyword, location, or category. There are more than 150 options available in fields like armor and field artillery, intelligence, and logistics support, just to name a few. Contact your local recruiter for more information.