Headshot of Female Slodier in camo gear with weapon.

Photo by Sgt. Christine Lorenz, 196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Pvt. Ashley Schwamberger is a combat engineer with the Ohio Army National Guard’s 811th Engineer Company and a firefighter with the Portsmouth Fire Department on the southern Ohio border. She said it is not a big deal to serve in both civilian and military career fields traditionally dominated by men as long as everyone is professional and performs their job as it is supposed to be done.

Female Army Guard member excels in traditionally male-dominated fields in both military, civilian careers

Story by Sgt. Christine Lorenz, 196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment


Pvt. Ashley Schwamberger pulls security from her dug-out fighting position, one eye behind the sights of her M4A1 carbine, scanning her assigned sector of fire. She is a combat engineer in the 811th Engineer Company, attending annual training with her unit at Camp Grayling.

The 811th, among many other male-dominated combat units, has not always been open to females in the ranks. It wasn’t until 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced an end to the exclusion rule for female service members in direct ground combat, that females were able to join these types of units. This paved the way for Schwamberger and thousands of other females to have opportunities never before afforded to them. The unit — with a mission involving the demolition and building of obstacles currently has five female Soldiers assigned to it — one is in maintenance, one works in supply, one is an officer and two are combat engineers.

Schwamberger is no stranger to breaking down barriers for females, both in her civilian and military career. When the 34-year-old combat engineer is not conducting military training, she is a firefighter with the Portsmouth Fire Department on the southern Ohio border. Five years ago this October, she joined the department as one of its first females ever. Last March, she graduated One Station Unit Training, which is a combination of Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to, once again, embark into barely-traveled-by-female territory.

“I’m just here to do what I’m told,” said Schwamberger, when asked what it was like to be one of the only females in the unit. “As long as everyone stays professional and realizes what the job is, then it’s not a big deal.”

After the lift of the ban on females serving in combat units, the 811th accepted their first females into the unit in 2018. Among them was 2nd Lt. Neva Finke, an engineer officer.

“For me, honestly, and the other two females that were there to start with, it was just another unit. We just did our job,” Finke said. “There’s always challenges with being a female in the military, just because you can seem like you can do less and all that kind of stuff, but as long as you show up and do your job, it really doesn’t seem much different.”

It was a transition for the Soldiers of the 811th when the females first arrived, but the female Soldiers thought of it as any other unit. Staff Sgt. Jeff Richardson, the supply sergeant of the 811th, was assigned to the unit after the first females had already arrived.

“I feel the females we have are Soldiers worth keeping in the unit,” Richardson said. “They have major potential to do great things. They contribute just as much as the males.”

Both Schwamberger and Finke said they assimilated into the unit with little issues. The biggest challenge for females breaking tradition and barriers in male-dominated fields in both the military and civilian world, is using the latrine, Schwamberger quipped. Her department had to construct an actual barrier in its existing bathroom to accommodate its female firefighters. But as both Soldiers said, at the end of the day, what’s important is getting the job done. As some of the first females in the 811th, these Soldiers are among the female pioneers entering positions in the Ohio Army National Guard based on skills and qualifications, rather than gender.

Courtesy photos

First Lt. Valerie Stearns stands with Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr.

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Ohio Army National Guard 1st Lt. Valerie Stearns has been in the military for the past nine years, and during that time has been deployed to Afghanistan and was one of the first females integrated into combat arms and the first female platoon leader at the 812th Engineer Company (Sapper). Stearns, who is also a licensed elementary school teacher, says that “it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in new ways. It’s how you become better.”


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