The first female active-duty soldier ever to graduate from a prestigious heavy armor course passed and graduated last month, the Army announced right before the calendar flipped to the new year.
Sgt. Cinthia Ramirez, a soldier at Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division, passed the M1A2 Abrams Master Gunner Course, a 43-day school that teaches noncommissioned officers how to be weapons experts in heavy armored units across the Army.
In a press release from the service, Ramirez described a difficult start to her Army career.
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"I was always getting in trouble as a private because I never really had a goal for myself other than 'get through this contract'. But once I got promoted and became a noncommissioned officer, everything changed," she said in the release. "In the past, I had some examples of pretty bad leadership, and I told myself I did not want to be that type of leader."
The Master Gunner is critical for any line unit, especially in a tank unit where the Abrams and its military capability is a point of pride and discipline for the tankers who operate them. Master Gunners advise unit commanders on their weapon systems and are the go-to subject matter experts.
The course, which includes intensive education on broad vehicle issues ranging from maintenance to minutiae covering hydraulic systems and "gun tube technology" is difficult, and draws a "very low graduation rate," according to the Army release.
"Master Gunners are standard bearers for unit training, gunnery, and weapon maintenance," Col. Ryan Kranc, 316th Cavalry Brigade commander, told Military.com via email. "By satisfying the course requirements and graduating, [Sgt.] Ramirez and her nine graduating classmates will be relied upon by their units to uphold the standards of training and realize excellence in their collective warfighting tasks."
The Master Gunner position was created in 1974. Graduates not only earn a badge, but an Additional Skill Identifier that shows extra prowess in soldiers who earn them.
Sprinkled throughout the Master Gunner course are numerous exams. Even getting to the Fort Benning, Georgia, school requires a significant level of prior experience: Participants must be at least the rank of sergeant to attend, they must have qualified as an Abrams tank commander during gunnery, and their battalion sergeant major must certify that they have completed skills tests even before they depart from their home station.
Ramirez was not immune to the course's intensity. She failed the first time she attended.
"I didn't pass the first time, and I got down on myself. I didn't want to go back. Thankfully, I had some amazing people on my side that believed in me and reminded me of my potential," she said.
Ramirez graduated the course Dec. 14, becoming the first active-duty woman ever to earn the Abrams version of the coveted identification badge, which is adorned with cross-laid weapons in a wreath.
The last decade has seen many uniformed women earning jobs often dominated by their male counterparts as the military continues its long and often arduous effort to integrate women into combat roles.
Then-Staff Sgt. Jessica Ray, a Florida National Guardsman, was the first woman to earn the Master Gunner designation for the Avenger weapon system, a surface-to-air missile system.
Following the armor theme, in 2020, then-Sgt. Shawna Tipton earned the badge for the Bradley, a tracked fighting vehicle used by infantrymen and scouts.
But the increase in women in these critical roles, and specifically lifting the ban on women joining direct combat jobs in 2013, has experienced pervasive issues since.
Ill-fitting body armor and uniforms for female service members, criticism from politicians and talk-show hosts, and -- for the Army -- years of consternation about a gender-neutral fitness test that saw nearly half of women failing in 2021 have been a few of the problems for women who serve.
That has not stopped progress, with junior leaders -- often young sergeants and officers -- appearing to lead the charge in creating reform and breaking glass ceilings.
"Mistakes shouldn't stop you from wanting to be a better person. So, just because we as females might fail the first time we try, it doesn't mean we stop. We have to keep going and pushing," said Ramirez.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
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