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Home : News
NEWS | Jan. 30, 2014

South Dakota Guard Soldiers make history as the state’s first female artillery crewmembers

By Sgt. 1st Class Theanne Tangen South Dakota National Guard

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Two young women made South Dakota Army National Guard history by enlisting as the first females to serve as Multiple Launch Rocket System crewmembers in the state.

Pfc. Erika Cotton, 19, of Volga, recently graduated from 13M crewmember Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sill, Okla., and Pvt. Stephanie Kasten, 18, of Hazel, will be attending her advance training this summer. Both are members of Battery A, 1-147th Field Artillery Battalion in Aberdeen.

The Multiple Launch Rocket System, or MLRS, is a highly mobile, automatic system that fires surface-to-surface rockets and missiles from the M270 platform. From inside the cab, the crew of three can fire up to 12 MLRS rockets or two tactical missiles.

Cotton and Kasten's opportunity to serve as MLRS artillery crewmembers comes at a time of significant change in the U.S. military. In January 2013, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, announced the rescission of the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which restricted women from joining artillery, armor, infantry and other combat roles.

The policy change now allows women to serve in every position within the SDNG.

"In the case of Pfc. Cotton and Pvt. Kasten, they have an opportunity to be part of the historical push to allow females to perform a job based on their abilities and not their gender," said South Dakota Army Guard State Command Sgt. Maj. Susan Shoe, senior noncommissioned officer. "That is huge. The opportunity for these two female Soldiers to learn a job they want is the significant change that was needed for our military to continue to be successful in the 21st century."

Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Rose, senior noncommissioned officer for the 1-147th Field Artillery, recognizes the importance of Soldiers joining the military regardless of gender.

"I am proud when anyone raises their right hand to swear in and serve, female or male," said Rose. "I hope they are looking for a challenge and a chance to learn and grow within a professional organization."

A self proclaimed "daddy's girl," Kasten, a senior at Hamlin High School, who plays hockey and enjoys hunting, wanted to join the Guard and do something similar to infantry. Kasten talked with her recruiter prior to the policy change about her potential opportunities.

"At the time when I talked with my recruiter, I found that all of the jobs I was interested in were not available to females," said Kasten.

Women restricted from joining the field artillery has been the norm for Rose, who has served in the Guard for the past 29 years.

"It was that way when I joined the field artillery in 1985. At the time, we were required to lift 100 pounds to load rounds into the cannons," said Rose. "Today, we use cranes to load and transport rockets. We no longer have the demands of lifting heavy rounds. I see nothing in the field artillery tasks that would limit females from performing any assigned duties."

As 13M crewmembers, Kasten and Cotton's job duties are to drive and maintain the self-propelled launch vehicles, reload ammunition and resupply vehicles, test and maintain the fire-control systems and mount radio sets and communication systems.

A few months after Kasten's discussion with her recruiter, she called to inform her that women are now eligible to join the field artillery for the first time in the history of the SDNG; if she was still interested.

Kasten signed up and became the first woman to enlist in the SDNG as an MLRS crewmember.

"I like to shoot guns, so being able to shoot missiles really stuck out to me and I felt capable of being the first female in the unit," she said.

From the time Kasten enlisted up until now, she has felt welcomed in the unit and is treated no differently despite being the first woman, said Kasten.

Not long after Kasten joined, another young woman chose to take the challenge and enlist. Cotton, a freshman studying Animal Science at South Dakota State University, knew she wanted to serve her country since attending her school's Veteran's Day program when she was 15.

"Joining the South Dakota National Guard had been in the back of my mind since my freshman year of high school," said Cotton. "It was that year's Veteran's Day service that really got the wheels turning. When all of the servicemen and women stood up to be recognized, I just knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of."

Cotton recalls the moment her recruiter came to her family's house to talk about the different units and jobs available in the Guard.

"He explained to my parents and me that there were a few openings here, a few openings there and then he mentioned field artillery," said Cotton. "I said without hesitating that is what I want to do, causing my mom to jump when she heard me say that. Who wouldn't want to drive huge rockets around and shoot missiles?"

The thrill of having the opportunity to shoot rockets is what motivated Cotton to accept the challenges of joining a unit not accustomed to women.

"I was told by a few others that there would be some people who don't think it's a woman's job," said Cotton. "I knew that I would have to work hard from the start, physically and mentally, to prove that I can actually do this. And that's what I've been doing."

Cotton credits her can-do attitude and work ethic to growing up on her family's ranch near Volga.

"Even though I am a female, my dad still taught me everything from how to fix fence, to drive our old Massey tractor, to breaking ice for our cows," she said. "I am very appreciative of how I was raised; thick skin, an open mind and a South Dakota work ethic has gotten me pretty far in life."

Diversity, opportunity and perspective are all positive reasons to accept females into field artillery, said Rose.

"We currently have several female Soldiers that work within our battalion, these two happened to have stepped up to be the first to join the 13M career field in South Dakota," said Rose. "They have made a big commitment to themselves and their country. In my mind they have joined an elite group of people that are willing to be called upon in the time of need."

Rose anticipates more females will be joining the field artillery and looks forward to their first female officer.

"We are currently looking for our first female 13 series career field artillery officer," said Rose. "That will also be a historical moment for us and that individual."

State Command Sgt. Maj. Shoe agrees with Rose about the future of women serving in any SDNG position.

"Throughout recorded history, women have been an integral part of the military, whether officially or unofficially," said Shoe. "The last decade of wars has proven that the operational definition of combat means engaging the enemy in many capacities and not necessarily on a proverbial 'front line.' Women should be given the opportunity to serve in a position they can excel at and shouldn't be categorized in any manner other than the bottom line, can you do the job or not? If you can, then go for it!"