Loren Ross has a year to pack on some muscle and some weight for what she expects to be the toughest challenge of her young life.
The Snohomish 17-year-old this week became the second woman in the country to enlist in the Army with a commitment to joining ground-level units in the infantry, positions that only recently came open to female recruits.
In fact, that’s the draw for a young woman who long eyed an Army career. She wants to be a trailblazer in the military.
“I’m one of those girls that when someone says you can’t do something, I do it,” she said.
She’ll report to basic training in June 2017, after the Army prepares infantry and armor platoons to begin accepting junior enlisted female soldiers for the first time.
Ross is quickly getting company among female recruits who want to test themselves in new fields.
On Wednesday, Levani Ilasa of Port Orchard took an oath of enlistment with a path to join an Army armored brigade. She’s the first female recruit in the country who’ll get a shot at serving in a combat tank crew.
The Army this year is laying the groundwork for the full integration of women into conventional units. It’s still working on a timeline to bring women into Special Operations teams, following the direction of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s December order to open all positions to female soldiers.
About 11,000 positions will become available to female candidates for I Corps, the Army headquarters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that oversees infantry brigades here, in Hawaii and in Alaska.
I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza said he supports the integration plan, viewing it as a way to ensure the best qualified candidate has a shot at every job in the Army.
“Expanding women’s opportunities in the Army will only make the force stronger, enhance readiness and war-fighting capability,” he said.
220,000 Number of military positions newly opened to women this year
After years of studies, the first steps to full integration are taking place at the Army’s service schools, where female officers and noncommissioned officers are training to take leadership positions in infantry and army units later this year.
The Army does not want its first female recruits to report to 40-man infantry platoons with no other women around them. The female lieutenants and sergeants at the service schools this year will get to those units first.
It’s a plan similar to the Navy’s integration of female sailors on submarines, which began with officers.
“If you’re going to put a young woman into an organization, it would be nice if she had some role models as noncommissioned officers and officers in the organization,” said Maj. Gen. Jeff Snow, the commander of army recruiting.
Today, women in the Army can serve in infantry and special operations units at the headquarters level or in support roles, such as medics, intelligence analysts and communications specialists. The upcoming changes will put female soldiers into what are considered combat roles on the front lines.
Snow visited Seattle this week to meet with Army recruiters in Western states. He said only about 30 percent of American teenagers meet Army recruitment standards for physical fitness and education.
That’s another reason to open more positions to women, although he does not expect that many female candidates will apply for the new roles.
“We do think the fact that all specialties are open is going to cause women to rethink the possibility of joining the Army” because their careers will not be limited by gender restrictions, he said.
Expanding women’s opportunities in the Army will only make the force stronger.
I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza
Ross took her oath of enlistment Tuesday at a ceremony with one of Snow’s deputy commanders, Brig. Gen. Donna Martin. That makes her one of the few incoming privates to take an oath in front of a general officer.
“I was so overwhelmed with emotion and support,” Ross said.
Martin brought a pair of female command sergeants major to the ceremony. She wanted the presence of women who’ve reached the Army’s highest enlisted rank to show Ross that “it is very possible to reach the very top of your profession.”
Martin was impressed with the new recruit: “I met Loren just a few minutes prior to the ceremony and I thought she had the spirit. She’s courageous, she’s a trailblazer. Really, it was an honor to be a part of that ceremony,” she said.
Ross follows 25-year-old police officer Tammy Grace Barnett of Louisiana as the first women to enlist in the infantry. Barnett also is expected to report to basic training next year.
Ross is a Running Start student enrolled at Everett Community College. In her free time, she likes to train dogs and work on her lifted 1989 Toyota pickup truck.
At 110 pounds and 5 feet 1 inch, Ross plans to bulk up by hauling a 60-pound rucksack on long hikes before she reports to basic training.
One day, she wants to jump out of airplanes as an Army airborne paratrooper.
“I may be small, but I’m not fragile,” she said.