CHEYENNE, Wyo. --
In 1869, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote. More than a century later, the Equality State continues to be a trendsetter for women – it houses Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry, which employed the first female infantry soldier in the country.
Today, of the 2,702 airmen and soldiers serving in the Wyoming National Guard, approximately 1 in 5 are women. They fall into the rank spectrum from slick-sleeved airmen and empty-chested privates, to brigadier generals. These women, officer and enlisted, serve as doctors, lawyers, pilots, mechanics, and yes, even infantry.
The Wyoming Army National Guard Commander, Brig. Gen. Tammy Maas, initially joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 1979, then transferred to the Wyoming Army National Guard in 1980. Her first assignment as a commissioned officer in Wyoming was as a platoon leader for the 960th Heavy Equipment Maintenance Company, in Torrington, Wyoming - a unit she would later command in 1993.
Under Maas’ command, the 960th was asked to be a substitute unit during annual training at Camp Dodge, Iowa, where they set a handful of records under her leadership.
“Typically units would start the fix of a major end item, such as an engine or transmission, work on them for their two weeks of AT, and then pass them on to another unit. We did the entire repair within our two-week window. That had never been done before. We did so well that they invited us again the next summer. It was really my first opportunity to form and lead a great team,” said Maas.
Now in her 37th year serving in the Wyoming Army National Guard, Maas said her parents were an immense influence on her decision to join the military.
“They were great role models in encouraging me to pursue my dreams and work hard,” said Maas, whose father served 40 years in the Army as a chief warrant officer.
Chief Master Sgt. Milissa Fowler, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, echoed Maas’ sentiments about the critical role of supportive parents. Originally from Clinton, Indiana, Fowler joined the military in June 1988 and said that the important part of her decision to join was how her parents were so receptive to the idea.
“They raised me to know I could be anything I wanted to be. We were not stereotyped because we were girls. I didn’t know anything about the process of joining the military. I just asked my parents to sign the delayed-enlistment form when I was 17, and they did,” said Fowler of her parents.
“I was shell-shocked when I arrived at (basic training). My parents always tell people about my first phone call home while at basic training that consisted of me crying the entire time. Then they tell the story of my second call home, when I asked my mom to put my dad on the phone and I told him I thought I made a mistake by joining,” laughed Fowler, who now has almost 30 years of military service under her belt.
“I vividly remembering standing in formation, studying the ranks and not knowing anything about the enlisted rank structure so I was soaking it all in. I saw the chief master sergeant rank and said to myself ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”
Fowler was initially stationed at McCord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington.
“I was basically the UPS driver on base. Here I was in my pickle-green uniform as a slick-sleeve, my first time away from home and not knowing anyone. I delivered parts to everyone on base and met so many people. It was the best job I could have gotten,” said Fowler, who now serves as the personnel superintendent for the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Force Support Squadron.
Col. Shelley Campbell, originally from Lakewood, Colorado, had much of the same experience as Fowler. Wanting to get away from home and not knowing what else to do, she joined the military and eventually landed in the Wyoming Air National Guard, deploying multiple times since 9/11.
“The Air Guard actually ended up contacting me in high school and telling me I had high ASVAB scores. At that point I didn’t even know the difference between active duty Air Force and the Air Guard,” said Campbell, who initially joined active duty in 1980 and was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, doing air traffic control.
Campbell, who is currently chief of the joint staff for the Wyoming National Guard, ended up getting out of active duty and moving back to Colorado to pursue her degree. While there, the young and motivated Campbell picked up marathon running in the Rocky Mountain Roadrunners Club, which is how she learned more about the guard.
“The guard seemed to be this well-kept secret,” said Campbell, who wished she would have learned more about it sooner.
At one of her final races in Colorado, the Cherry Creek Sneak, she ran into a familiar face, a lieutenant that she worked with and helped train while at Tyndall, who told her that he had joined the guard. Campbell followed suit and eventually landed at the Wyoming Air National Guard in 1997 to help stand up the 243rd Air Traffic Control Squadron.
As Campbell moved up the ranks, so did Fowler and Maas. All three women were instrumental in orchestrating mission success in the Wyoming National Guard.
“You have to high a pretty high confidence level and a very strong will to overcome and continue to work at it until you get it right,” said Campbell about holding leadership positions in the organization.
The journey of these three Wyoming National Guard women have common themes: supportive parents, solid work ethic, people-first mentality and willingness to take assignments.
“Whenever I was asked to take a job, work longer hours, or pick up an extra task, I always said yes. The best part about doing that was the relationships I built,” said Fowler.
“Work hard. Take jobs no one else wants and see them as opportunities. I’ve taken jobs that weren’t desirable or sexy. I worked hard because I had a strong desire to make a difference and I would think ‘Wow, here’s a job where I can really make a difference and contribute,’” said Maas.
Campbell said she has seen women’s roles in the military mature since joining in 1980. “We are better at our jobs now then (our organization has) ever been, and I think women are a big part of that. There are more opportunities for leadership and a greater understanding of all the great things that women bring to the mission and the workplace.”
Fowler agreed. “The Wyoming National Guard will always get the job done. Always. You don’t even have to ask them to do the job, they just do. You just need to take care of people. Over the span of my career, the thing I am most proud of is that I took care of people,” she said.
“We train our women to be strong. We encourage them to be strong. And they are,” said Maas.