FORT MEADE, Md. – Today, female Soldiers work and live side-by-side their male counterparts in combat zones. One of those Soldiers, Army Maj. Marci Hodge, proves how women join the fight and help commanders successfully meet their combat missions. Hodge, a Civil Affairs Soldier with the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion, joined the active duty Army in 2000 as a Quartermaster officer. In the first of three deployments, she participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. On her return home, she went to Airborne School and joined the Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne) as their only female Company Commander.<br /> <br /> “We know how to be Soldiers,” said Hodge. “My career has been a series of challenges, testing and breaking through the boundaries, showing my peers and commanders that gender is not relevant.” <br /> <br /> Hodge left active duty to join the U.S. Army Reserve in 2005. As an Army Reservist, Hodge’s second deployment took her back to Iraq in 2007 for the “Surge” as a Sustainment Group Team Supervisor for Division Humanitarian Assistance. Hodge was awarded a Bronze Star for her exemplary service. Her final deployment was to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012 where she served as Regional Command East Female Engagement Team Program Manager. <br /> <br /> Hodge’s future plans include completing her military education, getting a Battalion Command and going to the War College. She is determined to be an influencing voice of reason for leaders, colleagues and Soldiers. <br /> <br /> ‘Female Engagement Team Leader’<br /> <br /> Brigade Combat Teams, maneuver battalions, and Provincial Reconstruction Teams utilize Female Engagement Teams to achieve counterinsurgency objectives through their influence and interaction with local communities, primarily women. When FETs were first established, the question was how to integrate them within security missions. Because no standard operating procedures existed the plan evolved as the mission developed. FET teams were soon seamlessly incorporated into combat teams. It was a practical solution given the timing, people, and skills and it met the needs of the Army. <br /> <br /> As the FET Leader, Hodge was responsible for teams consisting of U.S. servicewomen and foreign female Soldiers from Turkey, Britain, and Australia. Each team member received two weeks additional training in Government Development and Security Operations. <br /> <br /> ”Despite the limited security training, FET members rose to the occasion,” said Hodge. <br /> <br /> Volunteers understood the risks and challenges and could walk away if they were uncomfortable with the mission. Some did leave, but others stayed, and Hodge ensured those that remained were set up for success. <br /> <br /> Above all, Afghan women welcomed FETs. Disenfranchised Afghan women witnessed empowered women who were mission-critical and worked on an equal footing with male Soldiers. By networking with Afghan women, FETs supported the commander’s mission and achieved an overall improvement in security. <br /> <br /> “The best part of FET was helping Afghan women,” said Hodge. <br /> <br /> ‘Lessons Learned’<br /> <br /> Military leadership learned several lessons from FET operations. First, the security mission matured more quickly if Afghan women were involved engaged sooner. Second, major personnel issues that detractors were so worried about really were non-issues. Restrooms, sleeping accommodations, and showers did not impact operations. <br /> <br /> “Look when you’ve got to go, you go,” explained Hodge. “No one cared if I squat outside my Humvee while we are on convoy in Iraq; we had bigger issues.”<br /> <br /> In a deployed environment, everyone is struggling with something, Hodge added. While on mission, you are so tired, all you want is sleep, and you sleep where and when you can, regardless of the Soldier’s gender sleeping next to you. <br /> <br /> Commanders also wanted to establish female buddy teams, which is often done in training. But in a deployment, a female buddy team is not always feasible. Hodge explained that when she was a company commander within Special Warfare Training Group, there were no other females. Were they going to reassign a female from another battalion just to be her buddy? <br /> The big issue is training. Women are an Army asset and should be trained to support the whole mission. “Give us the training and we’ll take the opportunity.” <br /> <br /> “I am a Soldier First”<br /> <br /> A year after the Pentagon lifted the ban on women in combat, female Soldiers from armies around the world shared their stories in Washington D.C. at a recent conference entitled “Women in Combat Units: Experiences of Partner Nations” sponsored by Women in International Security. Attendees included partner nation representatives, scholars and servicewomen and men. Representatives from nations who already have fully integrated militaries shared effective strategies for achieving gender parity in combat forces. <br /> <br /> Hodge was a panel member in the first session, ‘Women in Combat Testimonials,’ which included female veteran voices from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army. The countries represented on the panel, aside from the U.S., integrated women into combat roles between 1985 and 1989. The most senior female voice on the panel was Canadian Col. Jennie Carignan who commanded the Task Force Kandahar Engineer Regiment from 2009 to 2010. She was the first woman in Canadian Armed Forces history to command a combat arms unit. <br /> <br /> Hodge was impressed by what she heard and honored to be among history-making Soldiers discussing the importance of and challenges to integrating women into combat roles. <br /> <br /> “The over-riding message is clear, how to make Soldiers the best that they can be?” said Hodge. “How do you make women more effective?” <br /> <br /> There is no question that women’s bodies are different but it is possible to develop physical training that gets women as mission-ready as men. It is not a matter of lowering standards but determining what the job requires. It’s important to know that all Soldiers can do the physical part but it is time to end the debate of Soldier versus gender. The U.S. is seen as lagging far behind when it comes to women serving in combat compared to other nations’ militaries. <br /> <br /> ‘Women in Combat’<br /> <br /> Hodge was very happy when the Pentagon announced the policy change regarding women in the combat ranks. It meant female Soldiers now had the opportunity to advance to positions that were previously out of reach. <br /> <br /> While the U.S. Army studies fitness standards for combat jobs, women are serving as military police, pilots, or in Female Engagement Teams and face the prospect of combat daily in Afghanistan. By 2016, the studies will be completed, standards established, and blueprints designed for dual-gender U.S. combat units and over 200,000 combat-related positions will be available to women. <br /> <br /> Hodge has a bit of advice for female Soldiers with opportunities within the combat ranks. If you think you can do it, do it and embrace the challenge. Women, such as Hodge, are already blazing the trail. <br /> <br /> The infrastructure is there and leadership wants to do the right thing Hodge added. It’s not about gender, it’s about service. <br /> Since 1775 women have served in the U.S. military. Women’s military roles have been changing for decades, but with the Pentagon’s policy change comes formal recognition that female Soldiers are competent, prepared and a key to success. <br /> <br /> Trailblazers such as Hodge prove that a Soldier’s actions are not tied to gender. While the debate continues on how to integrate women into the battlefield, today’s female Soldiers are living the reality, proving that they are proficient Soldiers and capable of achieving their mission in combat.