“I wanted to be infantry, like my role model,” said Maj. Marie Watkins, of the beginning of her military career. Service to the country was as big in her family as church on Sunday. One of her uncles was a Special Forces veteran, and that’s what she wanted to be when she grew up.
The infantry wasn’t an option for female recruits when Watkins went to enlist in 1997, though, so she chose to join the military police. Her height, or lack thereof, provided another obstacle — the minimum height requirement was 5 feet, 4 inches. Watkins trained in human resources while waiting for a height waiver.
“No other female soldier should have to go through that,” she said.
Now Watkins, the operations officer for the 110th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, Missouri National Guard, gets to make sure they won’t. After the Department of Defense opened all military jobs to all troops, including females, in 2015, MONG leadership approached her about re-branching. She was already serving as an administrative officer for an infantry battalion in the Active Guard Reserve. At the time there wasn’t clear guidance on how to go about it, so Watkins filed a branch transfer request in 2016, and her Infantry Branch was granted in 2018.
Watkins took command of Company D, 1-138th Infantry Battalion in December 2016. “The first time I addressed the company, there was no air in the room,” Watkins said. “But I brought it up — I’m a woman — and they got over it and never brought it up again.”
Shortly after taking command, Watkins had a chance to prove her mettle in training. “We were in competition against other gun teams — 21 total, seven per company. My company not only was the only one to qualify, but we got a Top Gun award, made expert. And I got Commander of the Cycle!”
Watkins uses her standing now to guide soldiers and new recruits into positions that suit them. “Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and we have to capitalize on that,” she said. Combat arms might not be right for every soldier, but she doesn’t want a female soldier to not consider that path because they underestimate themselves.
One soldier who has followed in her footsteps is Sgt. Rebecca Caruso of Company B, 1-138th Infantry Regiment.
“I was one of those females who didn’t think women belonged in infantry,” Caruso said. “I thought it would mess with mission readiness, and America wasn’t ready.” She was a military police officer for the Missouri National Guard and did administrative work in the AGR. But then her readiness NCO said there was an infantry spot open and encouraged her to apply. “He said, ‘If any female can do it, it’s you.’”
Caruso talked it over with her mom. “She asked me, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I could get selected!” Caruso says. “But then she said, ‘You joined the military to make a difference. So go make a difference.’” Caruso listened and went on to make the Commandant’s List in both regular infantry training and the Infantry Advanced Leaders Course.
Both Watkins and Caruso look forward to the day when there aren’t any more “first females” in combat arms — that all soldiers just pursue the opportunities that interest them.
“I think there’s a lot more inside people than they think they have,” Caruso said.