When Teresa Burgess joined the Army in 1982, few women stood beside her.
“When I reported to Warrant Officer Candidate School, there were two other women that I had met,” said Burgess, who graduated in December 1982 as an aviation warrant officer and became a medevac pilot. “Medevac is the best mission you could have in peace time, because back then we didn’t have civilian medevac here in the state of Washington. So we flew all of the missions. We did hoist missions, blood runs, patient transfers, as well as our military missions on Fort Lewis and Yakima.”
Burgess later joined the Washington National Guard, and 25 years after her appointment, helped make history in 2007 when she participated in and led the first all-female combat UH-60 Black Hawk crew in Iraq.
“It was not just the air crews themselves, but all of the support staff were female,” said Burgess. “It was quite a feat in itself.”
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Women have a long history in the U.S. military, beginning in 1775 when they originally supported the civilian fields of nursing, laundering, mending clothing and cooking. Many women contributed to the American Civil War, whether through nursing, spying or physically fighting on the battlefield. However, women were not allowed to join the National Guard until October 1971, when Specialist Five Nora Campbell swore in to the Washington Army National Guard, becoming the first woman to join the National Guard.
In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed into law a joint resolution which designated the month of March 1987 as Women’s History Month. Since then, every March is dedicated to highlighting the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society, like those made by Burgess.
Following her return home from Iraq, Burgess was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer 5 in 2009 and was selected to be the Command Chief Warrant Officer in 2011, just the second Command Chief in state history. She retired from the Washington National Guard in July 2018 after 35 years of service.
Women take flight in Washington National Guard
Burgess paved the way for female pilots, not just in Washington but across the Army. Pilots like 1st Lt. 1st Lieutenant Liliana Chavez Uribe.
“My favorite part of serving has been flying for the Army and learning new skills that I never thought I would learn in my lifetime,” said Chavez Uribe, a pilot with 1st Battalion, 168th General Support Aviation. “I enjoy seeing younger people, especially females, realize that anything is possible as long as they give all they got toward reaching their goals.”
Chavez Uribe immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a child but always had a dream to fly.
“I have been wanting to fly since the first time I saw an airplane, but I kind of put that dream aside, since I thought it was very competitive,” Chavez Uribe said in a 2018 interview. “It was like dreaming to be a movie star, you put it aside because you think it will never happen.”
After completing Reserve Officer Training Corps., Chavez Uribe was selected for flight school and was able to fly a mission with the Texas National Guard on the Southwest Border from April 2018 until November 2020 when she moved up to Washington.
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“To me, this observance means that my job as a National Guard pilot does not only involve flying the customer around but also helps the nation’s domestic needs and emergency reliefs,” Chavez Uribe said.
Like Chavez Uribe, Staff Sgt. Samantha Garcia, who’s family also immigrated from Mexico, wanted to give back through service to state and nation.
“My parents immigrated from Mexico and I wanted to serve the country that gave my family an opportunity at a more desirable life,” said Garcia. “Not only am I the first member of the family to join, I am the first female.”
Garcia, a human resources non-commissioned officer with the 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team is a police officer in her civilian career, another career field that has seen a significant change in recent years with more female officers on the frontlines.
“To join the thousands of women on the frontlines of change is an honor,” Garcia said. “I hope to continue to bring awareness of the existing inequalities and be that inspiration for many more to follow because knowing women’s achievements expands their sense of what is possible.”
This past year, Garcia joined a group of 150 soldiers from the 81st SBCT on a deployment to Ukraine in support of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine. Command Sgt. Maj. Carter Richardson, the Command Sgt. Maj of the 81st SBCT and senior non-commissioned officer on the deployment, says the female soldiers on that mobilization had a huge impact.
“We had some of the most professional, out-going and driven female soldiers on this mobilization,” said Richardson. “They brought that passion for their position every day and worked side-by-side with the Ukrainian armed forces.”
Richardson has some experience working with strong female service members, having worked directly for Command Chief Master Sgt. Trish Almond during her tenure as the state’s senior enlisted leader.
After joining the U.S. Air Force in 1988, Almond would serve more than 30 years in uniform, often holding positions of responsibility traditionally held by her male counterparts. Almond worked her way up and in 2013 was named the Senior Enlisted Leader of the Washington Air National Guard. Her work there led to Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general to name Almond the senior enlisted leader for the Washington National Guard in 2015, making her the first female to hold that position at the state level in the entire National Guard.
After nearly four years in the position, Almond retired in September 2019. She stayed involved in the organization as the alumni chair for the National Guard Association of Washington, which she oversaw as president for two years and worked with another strong female leader, Col. Kristen Derda. Derda is currently the director of operations for the Joint Force Headquarters, where she oversees all domestic operations for the Washington National Guard.
Influence of civilian employees
While current Guard members can most likely point to a female leader or two they have worked directly with that impacted their career in some way, it is the civilians in the organization that sometimes have made the greatest impacts. For 54 years, Master Sgt. (Ret.) Constance Byzinker, known by so many as Ms. Connie from the Inspector General’s office, served with pride and drive to help soldiers. Many may have not had the chance to work with Byzinker during her 37 years in uniform but she had a remarkable career in and out of uniform.
Byzinker joined the active Army in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, a time when many weren’t joining the service.
“The Vietnam War was in the national news and in many high school discussions during my senior year,” said Byzinker. “My father had served in WWII and my grandfather in WWI and I felt a desire to also serve. But being a young woman, I did not know how I could fit.”
After reading about the Woman’s Army Corp Band needing oboe players, Byzinker went to a local radio station with her recruiter and recorded an audition tape. Her performance was good enough to earn her a spot with the 14th Army Band with service at WAC Center Ft. McClellan, Alabama.
“It was a segregated all female band as women were not permitted in the male bands at that time,” said Byzinker.
After serving six years on active duty, Byzinker transitioned to the Virginia Army National Guard before moving to Washington and joining the Washington Army National Guard in September 1973 and was assigned to the 133rd Army Band.
“I was hired as a full-time technician to fill the administrative and supply needs of the band, which was attached to 144th Transportation Battalion in the armory in downtown Tacoma,” said Byzinker.
In 1996, Byzinker transitioned to the Inspector General’s office taking an open Active Guard Reserve master sergeant position in the office. She would go on to serve for the next 25 years in uniform until her retirement in 2004. For the last 17 years, she has supported the office as a Department of the Army civilian employee.
Later this month, Byzinker will be inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame for serving more than half a century in the Women’s Army Corp, Army National Guard and as a Department of the Army Civilian with the Guard.
“I believe it is a time to highlight the changes that the Army has made giving women soldiers so many more opportunities,” said Byzinker. “Sometimes it is hard to appreciate where you are without looking back to see where others like you have been.”