In an almost entirely male unit, Capt. Sarah Latza could be viewed as a pioneer, a trailblazer, or an icon for a military in the midst of integrating female Soldiers into jobs previously off limits for female personnel.
Her role as a helicopter pilot has not been closed to women for decades, but as the commander of a unit with just three female Soldiers that also happens to be deploying to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield, it’s fair to view Latza as a strong role model for other women in the military.
As for Latza, who commands the Madison, Wisconsin-based Company A, 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation — she sees herself as nothing more than another Soldier in the unit.
“I do think it’s important to not view yourself as the minority if you don’t want to be it,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I don’t think about the fact that I’m a female. I’m a Soldier in the same environment and the same conditions as any of my Soldiers.”
Now she is on the verge of leading her Soldiers into a combat theater — a responsibility she does not take lightly, but an opportunity for which she is nonetheless honored and prepared.
Latza credits a strong family upbringing and the examples set by her mother and grandmother for helping mold her into who she is today.
“My mother and grandmother are some of the most strong-willed, caring people I know who will do anything to help someone in need,” she said. “They are the backbone of our family and have constantly pushed all of us to continue bettering ourselves and never settle for status quo. This drive has helped.”
Her mother and father served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and Latza and her siblings grew up mostly nearly Palmyra, Wisconsin, after several stops at Marine Corps bases in her early life. Family involvement in her life and interests was at the root of her upbringing, as she and her nine siblings grew a tight bond as a close-knit family unit.
“I look back now and recognize that all of the siblings have been incredibly blessed to have the family involvement we did,” she said.
While she grew up in a military family, joining was not on her mind until the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when she was a sophomore in high school. She had hopes of pursuing her college degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, so her parents suggested that she consider joining the Wisconsin National Guard so she could simultaneously pursue her education.
She enlisted in 2003 shortly after turning 17 and attended basic training between her junior and senior years in high school. During her recruitment, a recruiter took her to see the Black Hawk helicopters at the flight facility in Madison. Between that visit, her uncle who flew helicopters in the Vietnam War, and a high school friend whose family was into aviation, Latza knew she eventually wanted to become a pilot. Now she is leading Company A into theater and helping the Wisconsin National Guard fulfill its role as the Army’s primary combat reserve.
The opportunity is humbling, she said, but she is honored and proud to lead the unit.
“Being in a position to lead such a phenomenal group of individuals from a variety of backgrounds and then being asked to prepare for a very dynamic environment that is constantly changing brings its own challenges and concerns,” Latza said.
Since leaving Wisconsin in early February, Company A has been hard at work conducting its pre-mobilization training at Fort Hood, Texas. Latza praised the quality of the Soldiers in her unit for their professionalism and commitment to the unit and their mission. She said the Soldiers push themselves to learn the best ways to do their jobs, but they have also taught her lessons.
“I’ve always been more of a hands-on and involved leader, and I’ve had to learn to step back and allow the team an opportunity to develop a situation and the plan, come up with solutions and then implement,” she said. “Every Soldier knows that they can bring forward good ideas and see them implemented. Their ideas are often fresh and way more efficient.”
As the Wisconsin National Guard observes Women’s History Month, Latza was asked about her experience as a female Soldier in the Wisconsin National Guard.
“My experience has been really positive,” she said. “I’ve been very lucky to be supported and recognized for what I do as a Soldier, regardless of gender in the Wisconsin Army National Guard or where I go. I don’t feel that my Soldiers ever treat me any differently because I am a female, and it’s never been a question.”
Latza acknowledged there are some differences that characterize military service for men and women, but she views herself as a Soldier — no different than anyone else.
“That being said, my grandmother actually grew up in the era where women went to college to get married and hang their degree above their washing machine,” she said. “We get to fly and fix Black Hawk helicopters and serve our country.”
When asked what advice she’d give to a young woman thinking about joining the military, Latza said, “Don’t let anyone tell you ‘how things are’ in the military for females. Just let them tell you about their own personal experience, good or bad. Every person has their own experience and everyone has control of how they react to their environment.”
More than anything else, Latza echoed the sentiment of countless Soldiers who have gone before her.
“Knowing that you’re a part of something that came before you and something that will be there long after you’re gone. When I look to my left and right, I see individuals from all walks of life that all volunteered to put the needs of something greater than themselves before themselves.”
Latza and 1st Sgt. Robert Kowalke are leading Company A and Soldiers from Company D, 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation to the Middle East to provide UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lift assets and maintenance support to their area of operations specializing in troop movement and VIP support.
Whatever the unit’s deployment brings, Latza and the Soldiers she leads will be ready.