LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — In a field where change comes slowly, Camp Ripley has traveled light years.
"With our founding, as a mobile aerial port squadron — was what we were when we first came about — it was mostly male, if not all male," Master Sergeant Heather Boutin said. "Through the last five-plus years, we've been able to have our demographics shift to 50 percent female to male within the port."
As an air transportation specialist with the Minnesota National Guard's 133rd Air Transportation Function, Master Sgt. Boutin is in charge of a team that picks and packs up airdropped cargo.
"When they release the airdrop cargo from the aircraft, it is then our responsibility to recover it within the field," she said. "So, we will be picking up heavy platforms with the forklift behind me, as well as recovering parachutes, putting them into bags and taking them in our truck back to the base."
Her crew is Minnesota's very first all-female drop zone team.
And the team has come a long way. In 2013, then-secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat. Oh, how the military landscape has changed in a decade.
"I think the Air Force in general is about 80 percent male and 20 percent female. That's probably not the exact statistic, but our port is 50-50, which is unusual," Airman Katie Hetke said.
According to the Minnesota National Guard's spokesperson, of the National Guard's force of nearly 13,000 soldiers and airmen, more than 21 percent are women. The Army Guard consists of 20.6 percent women and the Air Guard consists of 26.3 percent.
Hetke said so far, she's never faced any barriers that were specific to her gender.
"I mean, as of right now, considering how split the port is gender-wise, it feels very equal to me. It feels very fair," she said. "I couldn't speak for other roles and how it feels for them."
The all-female team is equal in skill and efficiency. The work they do as a part of their training is work that would be difficult for anyone. It involves lifting, twisting, folding and moving heavy cargo. On top of that, the parachutes aren't light either, coming in at approximately 150 pounds fully rigged.
It wasn't an easy journey to make this female dream team either. One of the last pieces of the puzzle was someone getting certified to drive a forklift and a semi.
"There are certain qualifications that we have to have," Boutin said. "One, for myself, being qualified to drive a tractor-trailer, as well as, we have a couple folks on our crew who parachute army riggers, which is another long school you need to go to. And there are other vehicles, as you can see behind me, the all-terrain forklift that you have to be qualified on. So there's a handful of skills that we all have to be qualified on, within our recovery team, to be able to do this."
The forklift turned out to be everyone's favorite big rig gig, all of them taking their turn to drive it.
"I really like driving this," Hetke said with a big smile. "Because it's just so big — there's so much to move, you're so tall. It's a machine, and in the summer, it's A/C."
"I had no idea that one day I would be out here driving all-terrain vehicles," Boutin said. "Driving semi-trucks; being able to lead teams of younger airmen."
But even bigger than the rig, is the picture they're painting as a team: Empowered women, empower women — and the future is female.
"It feels pretty good to show other airmen, who look like me, or who might look close to me, know that they can do the exact same job that I can," Boutin said. "I really just want to be able to empower them, to be able to do this same job. I think having an example of someone who looks like you is sometimes empowering and encouraging in that facet."
The Minnesota National Guard said it has prioritized diverse recruitment since 2010, with the establishment of what they call Special Emphasis Councils. They include:
- African American Heritage Council
- American Indian/Native American Heritage Council
- Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Council
- Disability Employment Awareness Council
- Hispanic and Latino American Heritage Council
- Holocaust Remembrance Day/Days of Remembrance Council
- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Council
- Women’s Council
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