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Face of Defense: ‘Soldier for Life’ Aims for No Gender Barriers

By David Vergun Army News Service

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WASHINGTON, March 21, 2016 — While Army Command Sgt. Maj. Billie Jo Boersma is glad all military occupations and specialties are now open to women, she said she hopes for the day when gender barriers of all types are gone, and with them, the culture of division.

Boersma, who is the sergeant major for the Army's “Soldier for Life” program, said she's had the good fortune to have not encountered very many gender barriers in her 24-year Army career and as a child.

As a child, she played a lot of baseball with the boys and didn't really give it any thought until she turned 16, the sergeant major said, when she was told by game officials that she would have to join the girls’ team to continue playing, so she did.

She was around the boys all the time, because she was very athletic, she said, and she had an older and a younger brother to play and fight with.

In October 1991, Boersma was riding her bicycle to the sports club, she said, when she saw an Army recruiting office and went inside and enlisted on a whim. She was 21 and it wasn’t long after Operation Desert Storm had ended.

No one in her family had ever been in the Army, Boersma said. Little did she realize she'd make a career of it, she added.

Her parents brought her up with strong values and a good work ethic, competitiveness and never quitting, she said, so that dovetailed nicely with what the Army was and is all about.

Drill Sergeant

Boersma said the toughest job in her 24-year career wasn't one of her four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although they too were tough, she said, it was her stint as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, from 2002 to 2003.

While it was her toughest job, she added, it was also her most rewarding.

"At the end of nine weeks, you meet the mother and father of a new soldier," Boersma said. "Sometimes they tell me: 'He or she stands so straight and looks so proud and confident. You've done what I couldn't do in 18 years.' That's pretty rewarding," she said.

Boersma said she wanted to stay in that job the rest of her career, but "got promoted out of it" -- but not before earning the title Drill Sergeant of the Year in 2003.

Afghanistan

Boersma's most recent combat tour was in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014 as the command sergeant major for the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

That position was designated as male-only at the time, she said. But Boersma explained she had the good fortune of serving with the brigade's commander, Army Col. William Ostlund.

"He saw me as a leader, not a female," she said. "He put his trust in me and allowed me to lead."

Ostlund invited her to all his briefings and included her on all aspects of operational matters, she said. Also, she accompanied him to meetings with tribal leaders and government officials.

He didn't require her to cover her face or head, she added. "He empowered me," she added.

Afghan women looked up to her, the sergeant major said, adding that she thinks she made a difference. In turn, Boersma said, she looked up to her female Afghan counterparts who'd made it big in their army, police force or government.

A stereotype exists that Afghan men are misogynists and treat their women badly, she said. While some do, this just isn't so for the vast number, Boersma said, adding that many Afghan men are happy to see women succeed.

Success Depends on Good Mentors

"I had the good fortune to lead infantry soldiers in combat," the sergeant major said. "Colonel Ostlund made that happen. But it's not just him. I've been blessed with outstanding mentors throughout my career, all of whom were men."

Boersma said she, in turn, has tried to be a good mentor to her soldiers, both men and women. But being a mentor doesn't mean coddling them, she added -- they still have to perform.

In a way, the sergeant major said, it's perhaps a little tougher for female soldiers. If one of them presents a sloppy appearance in uniform, she noted, it tends to reflect badly on all women.

Opening up all the branches of the Army to women is just a start, Boersma said. It will take years, and even decades, for women just coming into those branches to reach leadership positions at the brigade level and above, she said.

It’s not as simple as transferring female senior noncommissioned officers into a previously closed occupation or specialty, the sergeant major said. Developing leadership skills takes time, she explained, and today’s young female soldiers will be the ones doing it.

Remembering the Fallen

Boersma said she's fortunate to have survived multiple combat tours and that she often thinks about those who didn't, many paying the ultimate sacrifice.

As a reminder, the sergeant major wears a Killed in Action bracelet stamped with the name of Army 1st Sgt. Andrew McKenna, who was killed during a firefight in Afghanistan, Aug. 7, 2015. She said she and her husband, Calvin, were good friends with McKenna.

Juggling Responsibilities

The sergeant major said that during her 24-year career, she's had to balance a lot of responsibilities, not just being a soldier. Her husband is also in the Army, serving in Special Operations Command, and family life comes with its own responsibilities. One of them was caring for her son, Derek.

When she or her husband were deployed separately or simultaneously, she said, they had to rely on friends and family to assist. "I could never have done what I've done without the help of these amazing people," Boersma said.

Soldier for Life

Upon returning from Afghanistan in 2014, Boersma was tapped for the senior enlisted position at Soldier for Life. The program is growing rapidly, the sergeant major said, but is still very much a work in progress, working to connect communities across the country with soldiers and Army retirees. It's a win-win situation for everyone when they do that, Boersma added.

Soldiers like to volunteer, she said, and their leadership and values are great assets to any community. And the word is spreading, she added.