When Sgt. Maj. Kim Borel was in drill sergeant school, she had a sergeant who always doubted her. But it only motivated her to work harder.
“My drill sergeant was just quiet,” she said. “He never said anything, but he always had that look like, ‘You’re not going to do it.’”
When Borel found out she was up for honor graduate, she knew that she would have to get her physical training test time down by about 20 seconds. So she loaded up on carbs and got some encouragement from her two female roommates.
But she was still nervous at the start of the test the next morning.
Every time Borel passed her sergeant while running the track, he would say, “Any day now.”
So she ran faster. And on her final lap, the entire platoon came out and ran with her.
She made her time, and she proved him wrong.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy is doubting me,’ but I did it,” Borel said.
Borel joined the military in 1988, when the armed forces were only starting to integrate men and women. She encountered plenty of people who doubted her, and plenty of harsh drill sergeants, but she got through. And she’s glad she did — she’s now the MEDCOM deputy chief of staff at Fort Detrick.
As of 2018, only 16 percent of the military is made up of women, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center.
While more military jobs than ever are now available to women after a 2019 decision that opened more front-line combat roles to women, there is still a large disparity to the gender makeup of the armed forces.
But other than having people doubt her, Borel said that there are no disadvantages to being a woman in the military. And both Sgt. Irma Blanco and Col. Lt. Bergit Lister agree.
Pushing past doubtsWhen Blanco heard about the opportunity to continue doing microbiology research at Fort Detrick from her college adviser, she jumped at the chance — even though it would mean joining the military, something she had never considered before.
The work she could do at Fort Detrick would be similar to the work she could do at the CDC, then known as the Center for Disease Control — which was her dream job. It could help her get experience.
Blanco’s parents were wary of her joining, as was as her sister, who had joined six months earlier. Blanco had to go through basic training and months of clinical training in order to start work at Fort Detrick.
“I joined the military at 115 [pounds], 5-foot-6, so I was very thin,” Blanco said. “And people kept telling me, it’s just not feasible, you can’t do this stuff the same as guys.”
But Blanco didn’t listen to those who doubted her. She did the 12-mile runs holding 35 pounds and the obstacle courses just fine, pushing her fear of heights aside.
“I hate when people tell me ‘you cannot do it,’ or ‘somebody else is better at it than you,’” she said. “I might not be the best at the beginning, but I will work hard to get where I need to be and get stuff done.”
Now, Blanco is a lab tech and the liaison between soldiers on post and the garrison. She provides social support for them and plans activities.
“To me, that is important to soldiers struggling, being able to take care of them,” Blanco said.
Having a familyLt. Col. Birgit Lister, commander of the Barquist Army Health Clinic, said some women might be wary of joining the military because they think it would make having a family more difficult.
Lister said that while moving every two years or so did make things harder on her children, they’ve also learned a lot from the experience of being “Army brats,” as they call themselves.
“I think they’re more open because they’ve seen more while they were growing up. Of course, when they were kids, I’m not sure they were really that appreciative of that fact,” Lister said. “I think it’s hindsight being 20/20.”
One of the hardest times for her family, Lister said, was during her deployments — one to Iraq in 2004 and another to Afghanistan in 2007. She served as a nurse both times.
“Having kids and being in the military can be challenging, because at times you will be forced to be away from them,” Lister said.
During her deployment in Afghanistan, she was in “the middle of nowhere” for about a month, knowing only two other women among an otherwise all-male group. But the women got by fine.
What made the deployments particularly difficult was that her children were old enough to understand why their mom was going away, and exactly how long a year is.
“My first deployment, my kids were 14 and 16, and everybody said, ‘Well, at least they’re older.’ Yes, they’re older, but they also understand how long a year is, whereas when you have a 2-year-old they don’t have a concept of time,” she said. “So that is definitely a challenge [of] being away as a parent.”
But Lister can’t see herself doing anything else. She enlisted in the Army when she was 19, and hasn’t strayed since.
She loves her job. In an administrative role, she and her team advise the garrison commander and the senior commander on health protection for all the forces.
“As a commander of a clinic, I guess you could compare that to being the chief operating officer of a company,” she said. “So it’s more of an administrative portion, even though I’m a nurse. I interact with patients every day, but not in a clinical [mindset].”
Getting more women to joinBorel admits that when she initially joined the military, things might have been harder for women. While she was in an all-female trainee group, her drill sergeants were all men, and they were especially tough on the women.
“And I just followed what my dad told me. Keep your mouth shut and do what they say to do. It was physically challenging, but with a lot of prayer I got through it,” Borel said. “And then, as time progressed, it got better.”
Blanco is thankful that the women who have come before her have helped pave the way for more women to join the military.
“I mean, it’s hard, but it’s it’s not as hard as she had it. So you had females that fought for you, so now you can do what you need to do in the Army,” Blanco said. “Take advantage of it.”
While Borel didn’t expect to find herself in the military, she’s thankful she’s still there 27 years later. At Fort Detrick, she works at the G-3/5/7, which she calls the “belly button” of the unit. It’s fast-paced, with several teams going through the G-3, and sending tasks out through the garrison. The pace is perfect for her.
“I don’t know why I’m wired that way, but I have to be busy. If I’m not, I’m bored, and I’ve always been that way,” Borel said.
Lister, too, is thankful for the opportunities that the military has afforded her.
“It’s been a wonderful career for me,” she said. “I can’t say that I regret it ever, being a part of it. I’ve had many opportunities that, as a civilian nurse, I would never have.”
For example, she started a mentorship program for Afghan physicians and nurses while she was deployed.
When asked what might help more women join the military, Lister said that more jobs being open to women is a good start.
“And just seeing other women in the military, if there’s more publicity about it, that would maybe entice some more women to join,” she said.
Borel hopes that women don’t listen to anyone who might doubt their career path.
“I would tell them if that’s something you are passionate, about, don’t let anything stop you,” Borel said. “You can do it.”