NEWS | June 9, 2016

New York National Guard female Soldier meeting Artillery gun-line challenge

By Eric Durr New York National Guard

JAMAICA, QUEENS, N.Y. - Ashley Diaz likes doing physical things.

She plays volleyball. She plays softball. She coaches youth volleyball and street hockey for a living. She really wants to be a New York City cop someday.

So when Spc. Ashley Diaz enlisted in the New York Army National Guard in December 2015, she was looking for a physical, athletic job.

The West Hempstead, New York, resident found it by becoming the first woman in the New York Army National Guard to earn military occupational specialty 13B, a cannon crewman, and join the 1st Battalion 258th Field Artillery.

Since then, a second female Soldier, Spc. Jelease Santiago, has enlisted to become a 13B.

When she was enlisting, her recruiter talked to her about being a cook, or a personnel clerk, or other administrative work, based on her degree from John Jay College, Diaz said. But, she added, that kind of desk work was not for her.

"I would not have done that for my regular job. I am not going to do that in the Army," she explained.

Then Sgt 1st Class Lewis Swartz told her that women could join the field artillery and serve as a cannon crew member. Diaz decided that was the job for her.

"When I sat down with her I went over the MOS that she was qualified for, "Swartz said. " They had just opened up this combat position to females and I said, jokingly, that this was open to females. She said, 'I would love that.'"

"I wanted to do something that was not typical for females," Diaz explained.

"She saw that as a huge challenge, to want to be part of the first wave of females in the combat arms,’ Swartz said. " I was pretty surprised."

But, he added, "You could tell she was mentally tough and I thought she could handle it and she did."

"The duties of a 13B are rigorous to say the least," said Lt. Col. Peter Mehling, commander of the 1-258th. "These Soldiers are required to be ready to execute a fire mission with little to no notice, 24 hours a day."

"The Soldiers eat and sleep in between fire missions, in austere conditions, while maintaining security for their position. All the while they are expected to maintain the standards of precision expected of the field artillery," he added.

But having women near the big guns is nothing new for his battalion, Mehling added.

"We have already had an enlisted female in our unit for quite some time," Mehling said, referring to Sgt. Aleisha Henry, who joined the unit in 2008 as a Field Artillery Surveyor. "So, having a female on the gun line is a familiar sight in this battalion."

The unit also has two female artillery lieutenants.

Diaz made it through basic training with flying colors, serving as platoon guide or student platoon leader for most of the cycle and scoring 280 out of 300 points on her physical fitness test.

At Advanced Individual Training she fell in love with the 155mm M109 Paladins she was trained on and decided that field artillery was the right branch for her.

"I like that rush you get when you pull the string," she said referring to the lanyard which fires the cannon.

"I won't lie, it was a little scary in the beginning. But then I did it and it felt so good. I wanted to do it again and again and again," Diaz said.

For a woman entering the world of the 13B—canon crewman—the biggest challenge is whether or not she can heft the 155mm rounds of the Paladin or the 105mm rounds fired by the M-119A2 cannons employed by the 1-258th, Diaz admitted.

At advanced training she was required to load and unload a round 15 times in 15 minutes, Diaz said. The first time she went for the time, she dropped a round on her foot. That, she admitted, hurt, and slowed her down.

The second time she completed the task in 8 minutes and 30 seconds.
She joined her unit in June and is looking forward to participating in the battalion's deployment to the Joint Readiness Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

"Spc. Diaz will fit right in to the battery, because she has earned the MOS 13B by meeting and exceeding the standards at Fort Sill," Mehling said.

Diaz, who graduated with a criminal justice degree from John Jay, and aspires to join the New York City Police Department at some point, said she has always been interested in the military. Nobody else in her family ever served, she said.

"This is just something I always wanted to do," she added.

Although she has just reported to her unit, Diaz said she is now thinking about applying to Officer Candidate School, or perhaps becoming a drill sergeant.

"I want to be in a higher position," Diaz explained. "I do not just want to stay at this one place."