For women, keeping an Army battle tank ready for combat at any given moment is a new frontier.
But for several female Fort Hood soldiers serving with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Korea, being a tank mechanic is already a full-time job.
“It’s harder than it sounds,” said Spc. Bryttany Landon, one of at least four female tanks mechanics with the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team who are on a nine-month rotation to South Korea.
The Army job of “M1A1 tank system maintainer” — also known under its military occupational specialty as 91 Alpha — opened up to women in 2013.
It was previously closed to women; not because it’s a front-line job that involves shooting directly at the enemy, but rather because it involves being in a front-line unit, repairing the tanks in quick fashion so they can return to the fight.
Pfc. Evelyn Gomez and Pfc. Kelley McKeon are both tank mechanics in 1st Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment — a combat unit outfitted with battle tanks. Years ago, women in the unit were unheard of.
“I was the only female in my platoon,” said Gomez, 23, recalling when she arrived to the unit last year.
Now, Gomez and McKeon, 19, are both part of the battalion’s Charlie Company, which has about a dozen tanks, dozens of tankers to operate the vehicles and a handful of maintenance personnel. That’s where Gomez and McKeon fit in.
“A normal day as a tank mechanic is busy,” Gomez said.
McKeon said a typical day involves physical training in the morning, followed by chow time, and then it’s off to the motor pool, where any number of maintenance issues await them.
Like their male counterparts, “we’re still expected to get the job done,” McKeon said.
The job is arguably one of the most physically demanding in the Army. An American tank can weigh 60 tons or more when loaded with ammunition and other gear.
“Anytime a tank goes down, we’re going to be the first ones in line, trouble shooting, finding out what’s wrong with it,” said Spc. Glenmaris Pruneda, a tank mechanic with the brigade’s 91st Engineer Battalion, which uses tank-like vehicles to clear anti-tank mines or other obstacles.
Just about anything on the tank weighs at lest 50 pounds, she said, and other parts — like the engine or transmission — need cranes to remove safely from the tank’s main body.
Since becoming a tank mechanic two years ago, Pruneda said she’s had to replace two tank transmissions.
“Hardest, longest work I’ve ever done,” she said.
The Herald interviewed the female tank mechanics in South Korea via Skype on Monday night. The are part of only a handful of female tank mechanics in the Army.
For Landon, who along with Pruneda is in the 91st Engineer Battalion, the experience has been an educational one.
“You’re adapting to men’s surroundings,” Landon said.
Much like typical “garage talk” that some men have, similar curse words or colorful discussion topics can be found in an Army motor pool.
Landon said the unit prepared by making SHARP — the Army’s sexual harassment/assault response program — a “big deal.”
Still, it’s a job that men in the Army are still getting used to seeing women do.
In basic training, Landon said she had a male drill sergeant who said a woman wouldn’t be able to do the job.
“I said, ‘Let me prove you wrong’,” Landon said. Nearly two years later, she’s still on the job.
For many older male noncommissioned officers, who had never before worked with female tank mechanics, there was a period of acceptance, said the female tank mechanics.
“Guys didn’t know what to say (when we showed up),” or what specific jobs to give them, Pruneda said.
Eventually, though, the women did show that they can do the job and had the technical skills to repair a tank. And, perhaps, they’ve even added skills to the team that are more prevalent in women than men.
Such as “attention to detail,” Landon said.
They do admit that the physical part of the job is still a challenge, and they routinely ask fellow soldiers to help them out if they are picking up a heavy road wheel or other part of the tank.
All jobs open to women
When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced in December that all remaining jobs — mainly direct-fire combat jobs — in the military would soon be opening to women, the tank mechanics said they were a little surprised.
Still, they said they are all for it, and added that physical training standards should be kept the same for both genders in those jobs.
The move also opened doors for them to become full-fledged tankers — the soldiers who drive and fire the tank in battle.
“I thought I was going to be a tanker,” said Gomez, when she originally decided to join the Army more than two years ago. She soon learned the job wasn’t yet open to women, and pursued training to be a tank mechanic instead.
Now, though, she’s considering changing jobs to become a tanker.
And having a background as a tank mechanic will be “an advantage,” Gomez said.
The first female tankers are expected to begin training later this year, and could be arriving to Fort Hood by 2017.