Westminster student in new volley of women in Army artillery
Military • When commissioned, she will lead units in combat.
Published: April 7, 2014 10:53AM
Updated: April 7, 2014 10:52AM
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Department of Defense photo by Cpl. James L. Yarboro, U.S. Marine Corps. U.S. Army soldiers of Fox Battery, 7th Field Artillery, fire a 155mm M198 Towed Howitzer during an artillery training exercise near Khowst, Afghanistan, on Jan. 9, 2005. The Fox battery soldiers are using the training opportunity to hone their ability to provide destructive, suppressive and protective indirect and direct field artillery fires with the howitzer.

Cadet Rosa Chavez didn’t know what the lieutenant colonel had just said.

Field artillery? Did that mean she was going into infantry or armor? Chavez wondered, as the rest of her ROTC classmates stood in the hallway hearing their postings.

The lieutenant colonel explained later. Field artillery entails soldiers hauling modern-day cannons onto the battlefield and firing them at the enemy. After Chavez earns her commission as a second lieutenant next month and graduates from Westminster College, she’ll be among the first women allowed to lead field artillery soldiers into combat.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Chavez said. “I was nervous. I was in shock.”

Women previously have been allowed to serve in the artillery supply chains and other support roles. But the Army is going to begin letting women aim and fire the howitzers, too. It’s part of the Army’s plan to open all occupations and combat roles to women by the end of 2015.

The wave with Chavez will be a small one. To begin, the regular Army is posting 51 female second lieutenants into field artillery.

It wasn’t Chavez’s first choice. The Army lets its future officers apply for their postings and rank their preferences. Chavez, 21, asked first to be in military police, second to be in intelligence, third to be an engineer. Field artillery was her fourth preference.

But Chavez says she’s excited. She is from Bakersfield, Calif. Army television commercials emphasizing leadership instilled her interest in becoming an officer.

“Since I was 6, I knew the military was the way I wanted to go,” Chavez said Thursday as she stood among the antique cannons and decommissioned howitzers outside the Fort Douglas Military Museum.

In high school, Chavez applied for a national ROTC scholarship. She didn’t learn she received it until a recruiter from the University of Utah ROTC called and told her the news. Westminster later recruited her to attend college there.

Chavez eventually decided to enroll there and major in criminal justice. Westminster doesn’t have its own ROTC program but its students can attend the University of Utah’s.

Thus far, Chavez has had two exposures to artillery. The first was photographing the crew that fires the cannon at University of Utah football games. The second happened in July when she was at a training in Fort Lewis, Wash.

Another cadet there told her about his experience with field artillery. Later at the training, Chavez saw some soldiers “call for fire,” the Army lingo for telling the artillery unit where to land their shells.

“It seemed pretty cool to be able to call for fire on something and be at a distance and see everything go on,” Chavez said.

The Fort Lewis experience persuaded her to list field artillery as one of her preferences.

Lt. Col. Troy Heineman, the commanding officer who told Chavez her posting, said she has the right personality and toughness to take on the groundbreaking role.

“She can look at a guy [6 feet tall] and would have no problem giving him an order,” Heineman said.

Chavez will ship out in July to field artillery training at Fort Sill, Okla. That’s also home to the Field Artillery Association, a nonprofit that commemorates artillery units and recognizes contributors.

The association’s executive director, Suzette Ortiz, said the organization has been recognizing women’s contributions for years. There’s no fear, Ortiz said, among the old artillery personnel about the integration of women.

“Tell her we’re proud of her and keep her powder dry,” Ortiz said of Chavez.

Her forthcoming posting isn’t Chavez’s only pending change. She is engaged to be married to a man who was enlisted in the Army for seven years and was discharged last year.

Chavez said she’s over the shock and feels more comfortable with entering field artillery.

“We train for this,” Chavez said. “We train to lead no matter who’s following us.”

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle