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Combat Engineer becomes first female Gunny.

Gunnery Sgt. Robin Baker, a Mineral Point, Wisconsin, native and combat engineer with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command (Southwest), pins on the rank of gunnery sergeant during a promotion ceremony at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Baker became the first female to earn the rank of gunnery sergeant in her military specialty after more than a decade of service.

(Photo by Sergeant Anthony Ortiz, 1 OCT 2013. Article by Corporal Paul Peterson, 25 OCT 2013.)

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - Raised rough and tumble in the modest midwestern city of Mineral Point, Wis., Gunnery Sgt. Robin Baker came from an extended family dominated by males.

“I grew up running around and playing in the dirt like Indiana Jones,” said Baker. “It was a lot of exploring, running around, and sports. I definitely wasn’t afraid to get dirty. That’s for sure.”
It was a humble enough proving ground for the woman who would become a pioneer in one of the Marine Corps’ most male-dominated specialties. 

Baker, a combat engineer with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command (Southwest), pinned on the rank of gunnery sergeant in October, midway through her deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan. She is the first female combat engineer to own the cherished Marine rank and title “Gunny.”

She’s also not done with coming in first. 

A brazen, unabashed advocate for the merits of simple hard work and reputation, Baker more or less stumbled upon the Marine Corps after dabbling with college.

“I was bored,” she laughed, recounting how she ended up in the recruiter’s office. “He showed me the recruiting video of the explosions. I was like, ‘I want to do that job right there.’ Luckily, I got it.”

Baker entered the Marine Corps in November 2000. She spent her holiday season with other recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., where her 13-year career began.

After recruit training, Baker completed her specialty training as a combat engineer and reported to her first unit at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. 

“Being in our [military specialty], you’re not going to find a whole lot of females,” said Baker, whose first unit boasted only four other females. “It’s pretty physical, and I was doing everything the guys would do. There was no special treatment whatsoever.”

Baker fell under an uncompromising microscope from the beginning. She refused to separate herself from the rigors imposed upon her male counterparts. She completed the same training, took part in the same missions, and accepted the same punishments for failure.

“When the field first opened up [for females], there was a lot of, ‘Why are you here? You can’t hack. You are the weakest link,’” said Baker. “That drives me even more because I’m not. When we finish whatever it is we’re doing, and I’m not the last person, and there’s people behind me, I’m not the weakest link … I belong here.”

She found no easy paths or simple shortcuts. She didn’t even bother to look. Instead, Baker said she embraced the physically demanding work and recognized it as an opportunity to prove herself and advance.

“I was one of them,” said Baker. “It makes a difference to earn respect from a group like that. Your reputation will precede you. It doesn’t happen overnight. It certainly doesn’t happen after a month or two. But once they realize you are there to do a job and do it professionally … they will protect you with their life.”

Baker said she found a unique bond amongst her engineer peers. They relied upon each other’s resilience.

“We’re crazy,” she proudly acknowledged. “It’s being in a group of people who are your family through thick and thin and who have the same goals. Our ties are strong.”

Baker attained the rank of sergeant within her first four-year enlistment and continued to push the gender expectations she faced.

She joined the Camp Pendleton shooting team and received accolades for her performance. Baker graduated first in her class for Platoon Sergeants Course and became the first female master breacher after successfully completing the Marine Corps’ Urban Breachers Course.

She embraced deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq, where she served on specially organized Lioness Teams in 2006 and 2008. Baker operated in direct support of Marine infantry units while facing down gender biases along the way.

“I imagine it’s the same way for males when they go someplace new,” she said. “You have to prove yourself. That’s the toughest thing about being a female. Even for as long as I have been in, every place I go, I still have to prove myself.”

It has been a long road, said Baker, but she made a mark on her fellow Marines at each turn.

“Over time, the Marines who have worked with you go to other places, and people hear about you,” said Baker. “The good thing about my name is when people talk about me, it’s not a bad thing.”

Baker accepted no excuses from her fellow Marines and expected nothing less in return. She lived by a “If I can do it, why can’t you?” attitude, and actively found ways to stand out amidst her male counterparts.

She eventually took her hard-earned experiences to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where she became one of only two female Marines to ever teach at the combat engineer school. Baker spent more than three years mentoring hundreds of young servicemembers passing through the course.

“I started right where you are,” said Baker, recounting her conversations with students. “Your reputation is everything … Once you tarnish your reputation, it’s hard to get it back.”

To be sure, Baker never lost her passion for explosions. The same excitement that drew her into the Marine Corps as a young recruit simply grew.

“I like blowing stuff up,” she admitted. “I get a rush out of the shock wave. But I would have to say after all my years being a combat engineer, the best part is being able to see the fruits of my labor. It’s that instant gratification.” 

Baker is currently the only female out of nearly 160 gunnery sergeants within her specialty. She already has her eyes on the next step up.

“I like to be one of the first or one of the few,” said Baker. “I’ve been told the majority of my career, ‘You can’t do this. Why are you here?’ I just like to prove them wrong.”

SOLDIER STORIES: Living for the grind.

A combat engineer with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command Southwest, braces against a flurry of sand while filling HESCO containers at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan, Aug. 12, 2013.

(Article and photo by USMC Corporal Paul Peterson of 2nd Marine Logistics Group, 5 SEP 2013.)

CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan - It’s a day-by-day brawl over mounds of sand, steel mesh and heavy equipment, but he loves it.

Marine Corps Sgt. Adam Rehder, a Windyville, Mo., native and combat engineer with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command Southwest, just walked off a 12-hour shift working on the perimeter here when he confessed he’d rather have a shower than eat food.

"I like to be clean," Rehder said with a laugh. "It’s a muddy mess."

He’s spent nearly an entire month tackling infrastructure improvement projects at the base. His extensive work with HESCO barriers — wire-mesh containers reinforced with heavy-duty fabric — earned him the endearing title “HESCO Master” among his Marines.

"I’ve actually grown to like it quite a bit," said Rehder, who supervises the installation and layout of the large, dirt-filled barriers. "It’s windy out here most of the time. You sweat, and you have that [heavy equipment] dumping that load, and its blowing right in your face. … There isn’t anything you can do about it. It’s motivating, definitely."

Rehder and his Marines stand on top of the HESCO barriers as earthmoving equipment fills the containers with load after load of gravel and powder-fine sand. By the end of their working period, the Marines are completely covered in said.

"They look like sugar cookies," joked one observer.

The statement was accurate, but deceiving. The sand works its way into the Marines’ uniforms and clings to the sweat on their skin. By the time they finish showering, a pool of orange mud clogs the drain. Sometimes they don’t even bother undressing before entering the shower. “[It] takes a toll on your body,” Rehder acknowledged.

The Marines alternate positions during the harshest parts of the construction labor, and they work at night whenever possible.

"It’s safer, to be honest," Rehder said. "It’s easier on the Marines and not as hot out. … I think we’re more proficient at night. During the day, [the heat] is going to draw that energy out of you."

The summer weather in Afghanistan often is hot, even at night. It’s not uncommon for sandstorms to spring up and engulf the Marines as they work. Somehow, they not only endure the harsh conditions, but also have enough energy to sing comical songs about their predicament as they trudge up and down sand berms or coil old concertina wire.

"It’s amazing, it really is," Rehder said. "I’ve been a lot of places, and I just feel like right here is where I’m supposed to be. The motivation level is high, the experience level is high, and it’s just awesome. … As far as where it comes from, I think it’s just knowing our job so well."

For Rehder, part of the enjoyment is putting his crew’s extensive training to practical use. After more than a month of honing their teamwork in Twentynine Palms, Calif., the rhythm and communication within the unit began to solidify. It continued to grow from constant application in Afghanistan.

"We practice our [military specialty] quite a bit, which is awesome, because I like [it]," said Rehder. "We’re pretty good at what we do."

The improvements at Camp Dwyer are just the beginning for Rehder and his team. They likely will complete construction projects at numerous other bases throughout Afghanistan’s Helmand province over the next several months.
 

Related Sites:
NATO International Security Assistance Force
2nd Marine Logistics Group

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Your friendly neighborhood MRAP.

U.S. Marines with Rolling Thunder 1, Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, conduct a combat logistics patrol (CLP) to forward operating base (FOB) Payne, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Rolling Thunder 1 conducted the CLP to facilitate the demilitarization of FOB Payne.

(Photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz, 23 MAR 2013.)

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: Sunset operation.

U.S. Marines with Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 2 (CLR-2) provide security during Operation Dynamic Partner in Helmand province, Afghanistan. CLR-2 provided tactical logistics support to Regimental Combat Team 7 (RCT-7) in order to extract equipment from VSP Shurakay to facilitate its demilitarization.

(Photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz, 11 FEB 2013.)