As Women's History Month draws to a close, members of the Wisconsin National Guard heard from one of their own who made history in Army aviation.
Lt. Col. Tammy Gross, who plans to close out a 28-year military career in April, spoke about the opportunities available to her that were not available to pioneering women pilots such as those who served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program during World War II. Despite being able to fly every aircraft in the Army Air Force, they were not considered part of the military.
"It never dawned on me that women could be discriminated from going into the service," Gross said. "I wasn't aware of any boundaries, because the women before me had obviously paved the way."
Gross was commissioned in 1987 and assigned as a chemical officer with the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment, which at that time had the AH-1 Cobra, OH-58 Kiowa and UH-1 Iroquois - the latter best known as the "Huey." But there was little career progression in the Wisconsin National Guard at that time for chemical officers, so her chances of getting promoted to captain in the battalion appeared slim - until she was urged to attend flight school to become a helicopter pilot. She was one of four to apply, and the first from the Wisconsin Army National Guard to be accepted.
"It never dawned on me that Wisconsin had never had a female helicopter pilot," she said.
She began training to become a Huey pilot in the fall of 1992. While at the school, Les Aspin - then the defense secretary - lifted the ban on women becoming combat aviators.
"I was at the right place at the right time," Gross said. She was enrolled into the Cobra pilot program, and returned as an attack helicopter platoon leader.
While she never experienced the challenges of female pilots in the WASP program, Gross said her new role attracted media attention locally and nationally, and required some adjustments on all sides. Some concerns were practical - showers and sleeping quarters, for example. Others were more philosophical.
"There were some questions about if we should have women in the attack role," she recalled. "But my leadership, and the Wisconsin Guard leadership, fully supported that.
"Nobody was overtly unprofessional," she continued. "I never felt in danger - nobody ever really challenged me, but you would hear the comments and the debates about gender roles and where women were going in the military."
Gross observed that, as the older pilots transitioned out of the unit, the battalion evolved into "a truly professional organization. As it evolved, the crude and inappropriate jokes and behavior, all that became an anomaly."
Gross spent 12 years in Army aviation, and recently commanded the 641st Troop Command Battalion. Currently she works full-time in the Wisconsin National Guard Joint Staff.
Since the Department of Defense opened more combat roles to women, the Wisconsin Army National Guard has seen more than 500 traditional (part-time) duty positions in combat units opened to females, as well as approximately 50 full-time positions.
Gross said she was truly grateful for the women who paved the path ahead of her and opened the doors for her military career.
"If my experience is able to open doors for women after me, then I'm grateful for that," she said.