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Defense Department Honors Female ‘Firsts,’ Role Models

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 20, 2008 – The Defense Department honored Army Col. Valerie Ratliff last night for her efforts to break down barriers for future generations of women.

But Ratliff hopes the recognition, conferred on her and dozens of others here during the department’s 2008 Women's History Month Outreach and Observance Reception, will soon be made obsolete by virtue of future women’s continued success.

“This is just the beginning of the trailblazer recognition,” she told American Forces Press Service today. “And it will be a good thing when we won’t have to recognize it in the same manner.

“The history books will be written, the ‘firsts’ will be done,” she continued. “The doors have been opened.”

The Defense Department honored Ratliff and 12 other women with “Female Trailblazers” awards. In addition, 14 women received the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Role Model Award for excellence in those fields.

Ratliff, an Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, is the first African-American woman in Army history -- and the second woman in the branch’s history -- to command a battalion of the elite 82nd Airborne Division.

In July 2002, she led her troops to Afghanistan, and because of her outstanding leadership, was asked to lead a second element of her command to Iraq. As a result, five years ago from yesterday -- which marked the fifth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom -- Ratliff found herself leading U.S. force toward Baghdad.

In addition to attaining the rank of Army colonel and earning credentials as a “jumpmaster,” Ratliff said the award recognizing her work in paving the way for women in the military ranks high on the list of accomplishments and honors she’s accrued during her career.

Ratliff, who also served as the evening’s master of ceremonies, said the award was especially significant because it put her in the company of other great women.

“I had already read the great accomplishments by the other award recipients, so just to be in the midst of the company of fighter pilots and first women to command ships was a major accomplishment,” said Ratliff, who currently works in the Defense Department’s Personnel and Readiness office.

The colonel dismisses the idea that women’s career arcs are limited by barriers specific to their gender, a prejudice sometimes referred to as the “glass ceiling.”

“I believe that that glass ceiling is no longer there. I don’t think it was (extra) difficult (for me),” she said. “I believe that the military in many regards has been started with men, and then women were incorporated into it, but with the leaders that we have now across the board, I believe that there is no glass ceiling and that women can go as far as they want to.”

Ratliff said the reward was special because it cemented her path with those of other women who are currently breaking down gender barriers.

“What makes it unique is that I was recognized along with several other women who (followed) similar paths as I have,” she said. “To be recognized for it and in the setting that it was for is what brought me the greatest honor.”

The event, which comprised an audience spanning everyone from high-ranking officers to junior noncommissioned officers, allowed women to share in each other’s success, Ratliff said.

“As each person’s small accomplishment was recognized, we each had a sense that we were part of it,” she said. “We were a part of what was being said about them; we were a part of the overall success and feeling that you got by breaking that barrier, so we all had that commonality amongst us all.”

The other Female Trailblazer award recipients were Army Lt. Col. Vivian T. Hudson; Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer Jacqueline L. K. DiRosa; Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer Beth L. Lambert; Marine Cpl. Sandy Vital; Marine Sgt. Cortnie B. Jozsa; Marine 1st Lt. Stephanie P. Drake; Air Force Brig. Gen. Lori J. Robinson; Air Force Capt. Allison K. Black; and Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Cheryl L. Gordon.

Other trailblazer recipients were Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall; Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Anne T. Rice; and Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Wanda P. Wawruck.

Recipients of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Role Model Award include Fourth Estate STEM Winner Pamela J. McCue; Fourth Estate STEM Winner Dr. Beth H. Driver; Coast Guard Civilian STEM Winner Angela Owens Waller; Army Military STEM Winner Lt. Col. Lynn Byers; Army Civilian STEM Winner Kimberly Brooks-Hall; Coast Guard Military STEM Winner Lt. Cmdr. Gabrielle McGrath; and National Guard Bureau Civilian STEM Winner Barbara Koscak.

Other recipients were Navy Military Winner Lt. j.g. Onege Bateagborsangaya; Navy Civilian Winner Maria V. Thorpe; National Guard Bureau Military STEM Winner Maj. Teresa Morrell-Riech; Air Force Civilian Winner Dr. Gail J. Brown; Marine Corps Military STEM Winner Chief Warrant Officer 3 Melissa A. Tafoya; Marine Corps Civilian STEM Winner Robin Thomas; and Air Force Military STEM Winner Lt. Col. Lynnane E. George.

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