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Two Wisconsin Army National Guard officers are making history as they blaze a new trail into the state’s field artillery branch.

When 2nd Lt. Alicia Grenier reported to her unit in the Milwaukee-based 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery for the first time in 2014, she became the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s first female field artillery officer. In November, 2nd Lt. Alyssa Brenner reported to her Oconomowoc, Wisconsin-based unit, Battery C, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, and became the first female field artillery officer in the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s lone artillery battalion.

Two different brigades, two different Soldiers, and one clear message – women are a welcome addition to the state’s storied field artillery lineage.

The Army’s field artillery branch and other combat arms branches had long been closed to women until recent Department of Defense changes lifted restrictions on women serving in roles such as combat engineer and in the artillery. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter subsequently declared all military jobs and units open to women without exception in a Dec. 3 announcement, but Grenier and Brenner will have a head start on their peers.

Grenier commissioned as an officer in March 2014 and was assigned as a field artillery officer. She first served with the headquarters company of the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, because females had not yet been integrated into Battery B, her future unit of assignment.

sm151010-O-QS269-296.jpgBy that summer, Grenier was re-assigned to Battery B. She then attended the Field Artillery Basic Officer leader Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in January 2015 and returned to Wisconsin a fully qualified field artillery officer.

Meanwhile, Brenner reported in November to the state’s other artillery battalion in the 32nd Infantry Brigade to become the first female assigned there. She will soon head off to the field artillery officer course as well.

With a few minor exceptions, the transition has been relatively smooth for the two officers.

In Brenner’s case, a few Soldiers mistakenly called her, “sir,” during her first drill weekend with the unit last month.

“It was kind of funny because we had M4 qualification at Fort McCoy,” Brenner explained. “Everyone had all their gear on – ACH (advanced combat helmet), sunglasses, everything. And as I walked through between the lanes, people would say, ‘Good morning, sir. Hello, sir,’ and then I would respond and they would say, ‘Oh, ma’am. Sorry. I’m not used to that.’

Grenier had to wait until Battery B was finished prepping for her arrival, so she temporarily served as a staff officer at the unit’s headquarters before becoming a platoon leader. Before she arrived to the 121st, Battery B’s female locker room had been used as office space.

“So there were a lot of adjustments to be made, but I feel like they welcomed me with open arms,” Grenier said.

“Everyone has just been really great and accepting, and they treat me just like anyone else,” she said. “I’m just so lucky to be in the platoon that I’m in.”

In the case of both officers, they are among only a small handful of other females in their batteries. Nevertheless, they both approach their situations with positive attitudes and an understanding that they are the leading edge of a much larger shift afoot in the military.

Both Soldiers are graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Grenier a 2011 graduate, and Brenner in 2015, but for all the similarities in their journeys and backgrounds, they each arrived at their current assignments via very different paths.

Grenier, a native of Poy Sippi, Wisconsin, and now a Pewaukee, Wisconsin, resident, studied political science and communications at the university and began her civilian career as a convenience store manager. She currently works as an office manager for Walny Legal Group, a law firm in Milwaukee, but is transitioning to a new job with a lobbying organization. Glowing reviews of the National Guard from friends and family inspired her to look into it as a possibility. Before long, Grenier was on her own path to service in the Army Guard.

“Going through basic training and OCS (officer candidate school), you kind of learn to love it, and you have a different perspective on what freedom really is,” she said.

She never thought she would end up breaking down barriers. In fact, she never really considered field artillery as an option during her commissioning process, so it was a surprise when she learned that, first, she was chosen for field artillery, and second, that she was the first female to hold the job in the state. But looking back, she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I feel blessed, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything,” she said. “I’m very honored (to be the first), and more honored, I think, to work with the people I work with.”

It helps that she serves in a high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) unit, she said.

“We shoot rockets,” she said. “How cool is that? Our live fires are awesome.”

Meanwhile, Brenner, a native of Marshfield, Wisconsin, is assigned to a newly formed M777 Howitzer battery. She had an idea that she was among the first, but had no idea how groundbreaking her career really was.

She originally enlisted in 2013, when she was a sophomore in college, and like many others who join the military, she just wanted to make a positive difference in the world. She never imagined that she’d be on the leading edge of a major transformation in the military.

“I just felt like I needed to be part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “I was watching the news every night and seeing kids my age overseas doing stuff, and basically volunteering their time and dedicating their lives to protect me, what I had here, and my family, and I felt like I needed to do my part.”

Like Grenier, Brenner commissioned through the OCS program at the Wisconsin Military Academy at Fort McCoy. When she learned that field artillery would be an option for her and other women, she made it her top choice, because to her, artillery offered the promise of excitement.

After one drill with Battery C, she does not regret her decision. Everyone in the unit was very welcoming, Brenner said. In fact, despite her employment taking her to Colorado, she chose to remain in the Wisconsin National Guard and plans to commute between the two states for drill and training periods. Brenner graduated from college with a degree in conservation biology and environmental studies and ultimately landed a job as park ranger at Chatfield State Park near Denver, but after meeting Battery C’s leadership and having the opportunity to serve in a new unit, she chose not to pursue a transfer to a unit in Colorado.

“I was looking for slots out here (in Colorado), but as soon as I drilled with Charlie Battery and talked with the leadership, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of, especially because they are a new battery, and they get to kind of build the atmosphere that they want to have,” she said.

Like any other Soldier or officer, Brenner and Grenier know that the easiest way to fully integrate is to earn the respect of their Soldiers by performing their job competently.

“I look at it two different ways,” Brenner said. “I just want to do my job and do it well without having to feel like I need to prove something or have a chip on my shoulder. I don’t want to work like that, because I know not everyone views it like that.”

At the same time though, they realize they are blazing a trail, and being first means that people will look to them as examples, for better or worse.

Does that mean there will be some extra pressure?

“No,” Grenier said. “I just do my job to the best of my ability and try to give 110 percent every time, and that’s all I can do. Hopefully that’s enough.”

Brenner had a slightly different take.
“So now learning that I am at the forefront of this, I do feel a certain amount of obligation to work harder to a certain extent to prove that we (females) are capable, because females are 100 percent capable,” she said. “And if people are going to be looking at me as kind of an example of what it’s going to be like, then absolutely I feel like I need to go above and beyond in proving that that’s true. But ultimately I just want to do my job and do it well.”

While they ended up in similar places, they both arrived via different paths, and more than gender, the diversity of their backgrounds, the experiences, thoughts, leadership styles and outlooks they bring with them represent the true strength and diversity of the Wisconsin National Guard, the military, and what these two Soldiers offer to the field artillery.

“There are so many different ways of leadership, and it’s not gender lines,” Grenier said. “It just is, and all females are not the same either. Everyone has their own different leadership style.”

Adding women to the pool of Soldiers in fields across the force only adds to the diversity of ideas and opinions that already exists. That can only lead to a more nimble, well-rounded, effective force overall.