RISING INFLUENCE: Women’s roles have become more influential over the past decade, DiVito said. Here, investigator Dr. Keersten Ricks programs software to scan a lateral flow test to determine whether a sample is positive or negative for COVID-19 antibodies at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). (Photo by John W. Braun Jr., USAMRIID)
The roles of women in the Army have evolved considerably, and past contributions have paved the way for the future.
by Cheryl Marino
Once upon a time, women wanting to join the Army, serve their country or simply make a difference were faced with a barrage of challenges. Restricted from combat and not considered for many high-ranking roles, women found themselves weighing their options and pursuing alternate professions that might eventually lead to their desired career. Today, they face far fewer limitations and a lot more opportunities. But the transformation didn’t happen overnight.
During the Civil War, women were limited in what they were allowed to contribute to the cause. While some women aided Soldiers by cooking or sewing uniforms, others wanted to play a more active role, to break through stereotypical confines and get closer to the front lines. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, an accredited teacher and doctor—highly unusual for the time—served as an unpaid surgical volunteer until her request to serve as a surgeon was finally accepted years later. She became the first and only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
By the mid-1900s, women gained more momentum in the workforce. Those who once fought to be recognized as Army surgeons were now applying their knowledge and field experience toward innovation and research and development. Dr. Janice A. Mendelson, who was known for her scientific research and a technical paper on experimental wound treatment, was featured in the Dec. 1962–Jan. 1963 issue of Army Research and Development, the predecessor publication of this magazine. She was the “only woman assigned as a U.S. Army surgeon,” and the article noted her promotion to lieutenant colonel.
Mendelson believed that “the military surgeon has a real opportunity to combine practical knowledge with research,” which she did through her experience in the field and study of wound treatments to protect burns from infection. She was the first female Army surgeon to work in the field during the Vietnam War, earned a bronze star for service to her country, and was presented with the Outstanding Achievement Award at the 1962 Army Science Conference “for a commendable contribution to science and the furtherance of the U.S. Army Research and Development program.”
Walker, Mendelson and others have paved the way of progress in the last century, expanding the roles that women play in the Army, and reducing their exclusion from traditional military culture. They would become the trailblazers of many firsts for women of all professions in the Army workforce.
LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
“I think we have a tremendous amount of opportunities now,” said Charneta Samms, U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s (DEVCOM) first permanent chief technology officer. “The playing field is now leveling. It’s not level, there’s still challenges associated with gender differences, of course, but I think it’s more open. There are more opportunities and it’s just a matter of taking advantage of them.”
Samms began her 26-year career with the Army as an engineer working on systems and human performance modeling at DEVCOM’s Army Research Laboratory (ARL) before she joined the program management side of the organization. Samms also led ARL’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach program and educational activities. Her technology background and experience working with budgets, research program development and management enabled her to gain a well-rounded understanding of the Army’s strategic vision. And her years of experience as chief of plans and programs at ARL prepared her for the opportunity to help move that effort to the next level of the command.
“Being a woman in a male-dominated environment, it’s hard to always make sure your voice is heard, but my personality kind of helps me overcome that,” she said. “I tend to be more assertive, but that’s something I’ve learned over the years. Because it’s easy to be quiet, it’s easier to sit back and not be the bigger boom in the room in order to have your voice heard. So it’s important to really think about the importance of what you have to provide, and it’s up to you to make sure that you’re giving a voice to the situation.”
Though women have made a lot of progress over the years, Samms said, the global pandemic has presented some challenges that have set them back a bit since women tend to have to balance family and work more than their male counterparts.
She said she believes that some women prefer having time with their families over pursuing leadership opportunities—a choice, she said, that influences women more than men. But whether it’s a conscious choice or a reflection of societal norms and earning potential, she said “That’s a challenge we’ll have to face. But for women that want to keep moving forward and want to take on more leadership opportunities, it’s there.”
The work that Samms does ensures that Soldiers get a better product—from the kits they wear to the vehicles they ride in to the networks and radios they use for communication—faster, and with enhanced modernization.
“Even as a kid I was always taking stuff apart and putting it back together. I drove my mom crazy, but I just always had an interest in systems,” Samms said. When she was in high school preparing for college she found out about industrial engineering and human-factors engineering. “I’ve always been interested in people and how they work and how they think. So human factors engineering kind of brings human physiology and the way people think into systems design, and that helps to build better systems, so that was a real passion for me.”
“I love the idea of being able to do what I love to do, but for the Soldier. The work we’re doing impacts our Soldiers and helps with the defense of our nation, and to me that’s super important. That’s a mission that’s worthwhile.”
Valerie DiVito, Ph.D., civilian deputy director of the military operational medicine research program at U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (MRDC), said she believes times have changed significantly since the days when women were limited in their careers and didn’t have as many opportunities as they have today.
“I personally feel like we’ve come a long way. It used to be that we couldn’t be doctors or surgeons, we were relegated to less influential positions. History speaks for itself. But today, at least within our community, everyone is very inclusive.”
DiVito said that, although at one time there were far fewer women in male-dominated military roles, since she’s been in research and development, her office has been heavily on the female side and she doesn’t see that as a tipping point where she’s in the minority. “I think I owe that to every woman that’s come before us and the R&D community,” she said.
MRDC’s all-inclusive STEM program encourages young women to get involved with this area of study and laboratory research to “build the bench” for the next generation of scientists for limitless possibilities, regardless of gender or race.
“If you show your passion in your work, it doesn’t matter your gender—male, female or in between.” She said a passion for what inspires you is the best guide for determining the right fit career-wise.
DiVito said that it was a lifelong fascination with logic and problem-solving that inspired her Army career—from senior scientist and physiological health program area manager for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, to director of the environmental health program at the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Research, to her current role as deputy director at MRDC.
“Math and science have always come naturally to me, and you gravitate toward the things you’re good at and things that you like. I think if you find a combination of both of those that’s a win for anybody,” she said. “I always loved problem-solving and logic puzzles, and when tied together with research and solving problems in the laboratory—it’s all about discovery, and I’ve always been drawn to this.”
DiVito’s role at MRDC is all about discovery and making a difference for the Soldier. She said Soldiers enter operational environments that are filled with mental and physical stressors as they prepare for battle and training. She and her team work along with advanced development partners to assess the needs of Soldiers and to gather and build upon basic applied research to better prepare them for combat.
“It’s about that ‘aha!’ moment when you can see how a body of research translates into something that can be implemented into the Soldiers’ lifestyle,” she said. “You don’t have that every day, but being able to see those times when it does happen, really drives me forward.”
DiVito and Samms don’t discount that gender disparities in the Army workforce still exist today, but both agree that it’s less prevalent than it was years ago and the strides that women have made in the last century have been significant.
“I feel really fortunate to have never experienced discrimination or exclusion based on my gender identity,” DiVito said. “It’s obvious that women have had to overcome many obstacles for me to be able to say that and for our daughters to understand that. Within the DOD R&D community, women’s roles have become more influential in the past decade and we’re all reaping the benefits of being a more inclusive team, committed to the mission regardless of gender.”
For more information, go to https://www.army.mil/devcom and https://mrdc.amedd.army.mil/.
CHERYL MARINO provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as a writer and editor for Network Runners, Inc. and Army AL&T magazine. She holds a B.A. in communications from Seton Hall University, and has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience in both the government and commercial sectors. In addition to corporate communications, she is a feature writer and photojournalist for a biannual New Jersey travel magazine.