JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Five women took the stage in front of an international, Spanish-speaking audience to take part in a Women’s Peace and Security panel at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy here Aug 3.
According to the U.S. Department of State, the United States’ Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security “focuses on improving the effectiveness of our foreign policy and assistance efforts across the board by proactively integrating the needs and perspectives of women, and empowering women to contribute their talents and energies to international peace, security, and prosperity.”
IAAFA set the stage for these women to share their perspectives with International Military Students attending the Inter-American Non-Commissioned Officer Course.
Major Specialist Laura Yanet Gomez Lopez is a guest instructor at IAAFA. She has 21 years of service and is one of only 10 female officers in the armed forces of El Salvador.
The major, who is in the Air Force branch, explained that because she is one of the first women in the service, she never had female senior leaders as role models. She stated that she is paving the path for others but it has been an arduous one and that the evolution of the armed forces has been complex.
When asked about what characteristics make a good leader, she answered that it was discipline and leading by example.
Lopez described a situation she had as a lieutenant where she was in charge of students in infantry school. “I had some NCOs that in reality were old enough to be my dad. And I was a lieutenant. So, when I would call them to formation, they did not want to listen to me.”
“I understood the reason for that was because I was a woman,” she added.
The major, who was the commander at the time, stated that she ended up leading the NCOs in a run and it was because she proved to them that she could run just as well as they could, that their attitudes toward her changed immediately.
The major’s experience lies mostly in helicopter maintenance but as she’s grown as an officer, she has also been given the responsibility to manage funds and acquisitions.
“Thankfully new policies have been created that have supported our success,” she said. “We participate in the same form of promotion, physically, academically and evaluation. And our jobs are given to us by experience and competition.”
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Katrina Gonzalez, IAAFA instructor, said that a challenge she has had to overcome is the perception that women are given more opportunities for simply being women.
“That’s the hardest part for me because I have worked so hard for everything I have received in life,” she said. “A lot of times I have worked harder than those around me.”
Her statement stemmed from personal experience and she wanted those in attendance to keep an open mind, saying that gender didn’t earn achievement – hard work does.
The five women on the panel, all of whom are married and/or have children, also talked about the struggles of balancing service to their country and their families, life in a tactical unit as a woman and how they’ve handled complicated situations throughout their careers.
In a sit-down interview following the panel, the discussion continued. When asked how they felt about being hand-selected to attend the I-NCO course, they collectively sat up a little taller in preparation to respond. The pride on their faces was evident.
Sergeant Karla Raquel Lopez, Mexican Army, is one of the eight women in the course. When the call went out from the army for women to attend as part of the “Gender Inclusion Program,” she immediately raised her hand and said, “I would like to attend this leadership course; I want to be a part of this experience which is typically only for males.”
Lopez submitted her package for consideration and was also required to take a series of tests on human rights, military legislation, culture, as well as a medical and physical fitness exam. She competed against more than 100 female applicants. Only four from Mexico were selected. These four are the first enlisted women from Mexico to attend the IAAFA course in nearly 10 years.
“We proudly represented the 100 women that participated in the selection process,” Lopez said. “Honestly, it is very fulfilling being able to say ‘I’m here, representing the women of the Mexican Army.’”
The common message among the women in the room was that they felt they were pioneering the path for other women to follow, and they were being empowered to represent their country and the Mexican National Army’s vision for gender integration.
“I can say I have learned a lot about the importance of teamwork,” said Sergeant Yasmin Álvarez, Mexican Army. “I have learned this is essential for everyone to do a better job and for us to stand out together. To me, working as a team has been an enriching experience because I know now that anyone who will be a part of my team will stand out.”
She added that she would like to be an example for her teammates [back home] because “it’s not about how long you have been in the Armed Forces, it’s about the hard work you put in within your institution.”
The eight-week I-NCO course prepares non-commissioned officers for advanced leadership and management responsibilities. The course covers critical thinking, problem solving, training and teamwork, feedback, time and stress management, public speaking and implementing quality concepts in the work area.
Sergeant Yozelin Olivares said attending the course has helped broaden the attendees’ perspectives and open doors for others in their armed forces to attend courses such as this.
“It’s amazing to see how we have been able to communicate with each other being from different countries and having different upbringings,” she said. “I will bring back the topics of leadership and negotiation back with me because this will help me within my institution with not only higher-ranking members, but also my subordinates.”
She added that she will be able to better support the officers appointed over her as a result of the course.
The Mexican Secretariat of National Defense General Luis Cresencio Sandoval González is actively promoting female participation in the Mexican Army and Air Force. Since 2000, women have been allowed to volunteer for military service.
Each of the women talked about how they feel empowered, how grateful they are to serve, the knowledge they will take back to their home country organizations, as well as how they couldn’t have succeeded without the support of their spouses and families back home.
Sergeant Noelia Garcete from Paraguay has been in the armed forces 10 years. She stated the “unconditional support of her mother and husband” has allowed her to concentrate on her studies and succeed in the course.
Sergeant Thania Morales, Mexican Army, will reach her four-year service mark in September. She echoed Garcete’s comments and talked about the appreciation for her mother who is taking care of her children back home.
She stated that family support was a critical aspect of being able to attend the course, and in the end what matters most to her was that she wanted to “set the example for her daughters.”
Since 1943, IAAFA has been providing military education and training to military personnel from the America’s and other eligible partner nations.
Editor’s Note: The quotes in this story were extracted from a translated script of the women, peace and security panel and video captured of each of the interviews.